“Theodora”, Christ Church Cathedral, 8/4/18 – Review

“Theodora”, Christ Church Cathedral, 8/4/18 – Review

After attending the performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora at Christ Church Cathedral, I can’t help quoting Dick O’Riordan’s words about the recent RIAM’s production of a Monteverdi’s opera (Il ballo delle ingrate): Theodora, too, “displayed once again what marvellous seams of musical gold and operatic nuggets continue to be mined from that era.”

A collaboration between the vocal ensemble Sestina Music and Irish Baroque Orchestra, the oratorio was presented in a staged version and set in contemporary times. Leaving aside the superfluous need to try and bring closer to us anything that in opera feels ‘old’, as well as the questionable but popular habit of dramatising the overture, the performance was superb.

The story tells of the Christian Theodora resisting the Romans’ order to worship the pagan gods, and of the converted Didimus, in love with her, ending up sacrificing his life together with Theodora in the vain attempt to save hers.

The young singers impressed. Countertenor Joseph Zubier as Didimus showed excellent singing and a promising voice. Peter Harris, as the compassionate Roman soldier Septimius, sang with conviction and control and displayed an alluring tenor voice. Bass Aaron O’Hare was a fitting Valens, the cruel officer.

Outstanding in the role of Theodora was Charlotte Trepress: her broad ranging soprano was always richly expressive and beautifully modulated, her performance culminating in the exquisite aria “Oh, that I on wings could rise”. The chorus was equally impressive. Conducted by Mark Chambers, finally, Irish Baroque Orchestra’s performance was as divine as Handel’s score.

If listening to Theodora alone, one could have a particularly hard time understanding all the blame thrown in the past on baroque music: superficial, overly ornamental and disjointed from reality. The infinitely intelligent writing of this work shows that ornamentation is not, necessarily, the opposite of substance.

 

Tosca – Bord Gais Energy Theatre, 14/3/18 – Review

Review first published on Nomoreworkhorse.com on 16/3/18.

As the one and only European capital without a dedicated opera house, there’s an element of novelty and treat that must be unique to Dublin audiences in going to the opera in a big, beautiful theatre. So attending Tosca – one of the pillars of the operatic repertoire as well as one of the most visceral operas ever written – in the shiny, contemporary frame of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was something I was really looking forward to. Nor was the enchantment broken at the opening of the huge red velvet curtains.

The production, by St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera and International Leisure and Arts, is a gloriously traditional one and we are treated to a visual feast of lavish costumes and stunning sets. The opera’s locations of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the interior of Palazzo Farnese and the rooftop of Castel Sant’Angelo are spectacularly recreated on stage by the means of realistic marble columns, checkered floors, heavy curtains, shiny chandeliers and impressive lighting design; the whole effect amplified by the generous proportions of the stage.

The standard of singing wasn’t, however, quite in par with the visual element of the production. Tenor Fyodor Ataskevich seemed quite attuned to the role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi; but his singing was uneven and the high pitches required in the main arias weren’t handled very strongly.

Baritone Alexander Kuznetsov, as the evil chief of police Scarpia, distinguished himself for the most correct Italian pronunciation among the cast. On the other hand he lacked the impetus of this very distinctive character, with his voice remaining rather atonic for most of the performance, exception made for some rare moments during the famous duet with Tosca in the second act.

Celine Byrne is gifted with one of the most beautiful voices among Irish sopranos; her tone has a sensuous and velvety depth that lingers in your memory. “Vissi d’arte” was the perfect showcase aria for her natural talent and was splendidly performed, being by far the highlight of the evening. However, her acting during most of the opera left something to be desired and her recitatives weren’t compelling enough to be fully believable. The second act was her best one.

With the aforementioned exception of Scarpia, incorrect Italian pronunciation was a widespread and recurrent issue among the singers. Even if you are not a native speaker, as an opera lover you are bound to learn some of the most famous arias by heart, and hearing any straying from the original can prove disturbing.

Under the direction of Mikhail Tatarnikov, The National Symphony Orchestra execution was – naturally – impeccable and Puccini’s score worked its usual charm, particularly in the third act. I personally found the tempi of both love duets (in the first and third act) unbearably phlegmatic. This was exacerbated by the uncertainty of the tenor in the Italian pronunciation, particularly in a passage of the duet in the third act, where the addition of a syllable in a verse (“Amaro sol[o] per te m’era il morire”) visibly jumbled the flow of the singing.

Here’s the thing: no visual embellishment can make us forget that the essence of opera is in the singing. We can use as a litmus test the following: would we be moved if we saw the same singers in a shabby room wearing ordinary clothes? If the answer is yes, then we’ll be sure we are witnessing great opera.

Here’s hoping that such a beautiful theatre will be more regularly filled with opera, and with productions that can successfully balance the singing and the staging.

Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Sex and the opera: “Powder her face” tours Ireland in first Irish National Opera production.

Let’s be honest: “contemporary opera” can sound a bit intimidating. But if you want to give it a try, “Powder her face” is a good place to start. A 1995 opera by Thomas Adès on libretto by Philip Hensher, it has collected critical consensus throughout the years, reaching the reassuring status of “a modern classic” (The Times).

This is a co-production of Irish National Opera and Northern Ireland Opera that has appeared in Belfast last year with extremely positive reviews, and it will now tour Ireland from the 24th of February until the 9th of March. “The audience will find that it is remarkably accessible, easy to understand and very entertaining. The music is a kaleidoscope of different styles and influences […] from the nostalgia of the 1930s to the edginess of more contemporary times” says Fergus Sheil, artistic director of INO.

Lost in opera’s divine music, one doesn’t really think about it, but operatic plots have always been fuelled by sex in all its shades, ranging from romance (La Bohème), to lust (Carmen), to violence (Rigoletto). But sex has always remained behind the scenes and only hinted at in allusive lyrics.

But what if the libretto becomes explicit and sex takes centre stage in the plot? That’s what happens in “Powder her face”. Leaving out feminism for a moment, a wife who collects more than 88 (paid for) lovers seems to be an extreme and unlikely subject for an opera. Except that it’s all true. The plot is based on the true story of the Duchess of Argyll and her scandalous divorce case in 1963. As the great Italian writer Luigi Pirandello said, reality always surpasses imagination.

Still, doesn’t the character of the Duchess risk looking like a caricature, therefore hindering any kind of identification from the audience?

Soprano Daire Halpin (who plays the maid and other roles in the opera) doesn’t think so: in depicting the downfall of the billionaire “dirty Duchess”, as she was called, “Mary [Plazas] gives such a sensitive portrayal of that process of ageing whereby no matter who you were, ageing is so universal and you can become so invisible. […] That’s incredibly moving and very real for many of us. […] And it happens to her in such a stark way, because she loses all her money, she loses all her influence, she loses her home […] she loses everything. I think it’s the real human heart of the story”. We also see that sex in the story “is used for control and power and manipulation. […] It becomes obvious later on that [the Duchess] is using sex as an emotional crutch to fill emotional voids in her life.”

This opera is “fast paced, witty, entertaining, moving and ultimately heartbreaking” says Fergus Sheil. It definitely looks like a must see to us.

For dates, venues and to book your tickets to “Powder her face”: http://www.irishnationalopera.ie/whats-on/current-upcoming-productions/powder-her-face.

* Picture: Daire Halpin and Stephen Richardson in “Powder her face”. Photo by Pat Redmond.

 

 

 

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

“Look back in anger”, Gate Theatre, 7/2/18 – Review

Although written in 1956, John Osborne’s play “Look back in anger”, which opened at the Gate Theatre last Wednesday, still manages to sound current today and hurls us into the midst of a socio-psychological perfect storm.

Young Jimmy Porter (Ian Toner), of working class origins but well educated, is married to Alison (Clare Dunne), a middle class girl; they live in a one room attic flat in the English Midlands. Cliff (Lloyd Cooney) is their indolent, semi-cohabiting friend.

Jimmy appears like a pretentious, nasty, self absorbed intellectual, as interested in political and cultural  matters as in continuously measuring and asserting the distance between himself and a seemingly lower order of human beings, which happens to include his best friend Cliff and his own wife.

After a start where the character of Jimmy doesn’t elicit many sympathies, little by little the play challenges the audience with a more complex moral reading. Jimmy is obnoxious and dislikable as only uncompromising idealists are. He is cynical and misogynist, but his world of beliefs is the result of an uncaring mother and of a childhood’s traumatic event. He’s the child who doesn’t want to grow up, who doesn’t want to give way to adulthood and its loss of passion, but who still has to face the real world every day. He’s a fragile monster.

The moral compass, symbolised by the character of Helena (Vanessa Emme), Alison’s stern friend, gets seemingly broken by the comical twist at the end of second act, where moral contempt is unexpectedly turned into physical attraction, replicating Jimmy’s relationship with his wife.

In a play that is rather unbalanced towards monologue, Alison appears to be, in fact, more of a metaphor than a fleshed out character: she represents the coexisting attraction and repulsion of the working class towards the middle class. She also possesses the beauty and coldness of unattainable perfection.

In this anti “Romeo and Juliet” play, love doesn’t conquer all, but it is achingly conquered: by class division, daily routine, personal traumas, misogyny, narcissism. It is conquered by anger. Education doesn’t always turn out to be liberating, and sometimes only makes social frictions more acute.

The cast’s performances were all very strong, with Clare Dunne standing out for delectably polished naturalness.

I’ve personally found director Annabelle Comyn’s metatheatrical choices unconvincing. The voiceover reading of the playwright’s stage notes, the increasing dissociation of the actors from said notes, the set design (by Paul O’Mahoney) showing the theatre walls around the staged flat, were all aimed at “questioning the author’s voice”, to use the director’s own words. But why should we be questioning an artist’s voice, other than on strictly artistic terms?

While on a purely theatrical level these devices end up appearing as distracting, the distancing and dissociation from the roughness of the text present a more specifically ethical question: should art only be representing the good? Just because some of the issues present in the play – like misogyny and violence – are still painfully current it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see them on stage. Theatrical representation (or any artistic expression, for the matter) was never meant to be an endorsement of behaviour. We do not need to fight literary villains. On the contrary. We need to let them talk, and shout, and be as bad as they can be. Smoothing the unsightly parts of a work of art invalidates the very concept and nature of theatre and its cathartic power.

“Look back in anger” only real – that is, artistic – issue is that it doesn’t always succeed in lifting the autobiographical to the universal. Even so, it will still speak to many today. A complex and controversial work that is definitely worth seeing.
“Look back in anger” runs at the Gate Theatre until March 24. Further info / bookings gatetheatre.ie

* Photo by Luca Truffarelli

RIAM’s La finta giardiniera, Beckett Theatre, 16/1/18 – Review

RIAM’s La finta giardiniera, Beckett Theatre, 16/1/18 – Review

I confess: I went to La finta Giardiniera at the Beckett Theatre for Mozart’s music. It was a students’ show, yes, but you can’t have everything. Little I knew I was in for a treat.

The production presented promising students from RIAM, and was made in collaboration with IADT students for hair and make up, while the creative team was a professional one.

La finta giardiniera makes for an instantly captivating listening, like a succession of pop songs from the eighteenth century. The score contains in nuce Mozart’s genius, while the libretto is full to the brim with facetious rhymes.

I disagree with William Mann’s dismissive opinion of the libretto (“feeble, stereotyped and […] incompetent”) as a distinction needs to be made between the plot and the verses. On the thin canvas of the ludicrous plot, the libretto manages to paint all the painful shades of unreciprocated love: jealousy, desire, madness, although in a formally comic guise. What’s more, the Italian verses of the libretto are moulded with exceeding metrical skill.

Veteran director Ben Barnes did a dazzling job in adapting this work. Both the directorial choices and the movement director’s (Libby Seward) ones were spotless, bringing out and magnifying the surreal nature of divertissement of this opera. On the other hand, the English of the surtitles could have been more literally faithful to the original.

Conductor Andrew Synnott drew out of the students’ orchestra a very enjoyable rendition of the score, particularly energetic in the aria of playfully metatheatrical flavour “Dentro il mio petto io sento”, sung with confidence by Vladimir Sima.

Clodagh Kinsella was a perfect Sandrina, with great stage presence, good acting and an interesting colour to her voice. James McCreanor displayed a sweet Mozart tenor voice. Eimear McCarthy Luddy was a very good Ramira, in an untangling of the trousers role’s ambiguity where the original “Ramiro” becomes the gay suitor of Arminda. Dylan Rooney (Nardo) boasted a deep baritone voice.  

Both Corina Ignat (Arminda) and Ecaterina Tulgara (Serpetta) demonstrated striking acting  and astounding vocal control, with the second one leaving a particularly strong impression in my mind.

*Picture: Vladimir Sima, James McCreanor, Corina Ignat, Ecaterina Tulgara and Dylan Rooney in RIAM’s “La finta giardiniera”. Photo by Colm Hogan.

First staging of “The Sleeping Queen” by M.W. Balfe coming up at NCH.

First staging of “The Sleeping Queen” by M.W. Balfe coming up at NCH.

Not many people outside of the opera world know that the song “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls” (made popular, among others, by Enya) is, in fact, a ballad from an opera, The Bohemian girl (1843), written by the most prominent Irish operatic composer of the past, as well as of the Victorian period: Michael William Balfe.

Now largely fallen into oblivion, in his days Balfe truly enjoyed an international career – first as an opera singer and then as a composer – between Italy, France and England. His operas were so successful that they were staged across the globe, from New York to Sidney.

His only operetta, The sleeping queen (1864), will receive its first modern staging in its complete form (arias and dialogue) on Monday 22nd of January, in the John Field Room at the National Concert Hall. The show, directed by Peter McDermott, is presented by DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama and the producer, Una Hunt, will give a short pre-opera talk.

There are only a handful of recordings of entire operas by the Irish composer. For a sample of the eclecticism of his music, on iTunes you can listen to two very different operas: the aforementioned The Bohemian Girl, a ballad opera (typical of the English tradition), and Falstaff (a live concert recording from 2008), an Italian style opera, visibly drenched in Rossini and Donizetti’s orchestral and vocal lines.
To book tickets, visit https://www.nch.ie/Online/The-Sleeping-Queen-22Jan18.

*Picture: Tenor Oisín Ó Dálaigh and soprano Catherine Donnelly. Photo by Conor Mulhern.

Cast

Maria Dolores, Queen of Leon –  Catherine Donnelly, soprano
Donna Agnes, Maid of Honour –  Sarah Kilcoyne, mezzo soprano
Philippe D’Aquilar, a young exile –  Oisin O Dalaigh, tenor
His Excellency, the Regent –  Kevin Neville, baritone

Vocal director, Stephen Wallace
Musical director, Una Hunt
Directed by Peter McDermott
Produced by Una Hunt

DIT Sleeping Queen FLYERx2 A5

The Big Bang! – Concert review (9/1/18)

The Big Bang! – Concert review (9/1/18)

This is an extract of my review published on Bachtrack:

The biggest stigma associated with opera in Ireland is not that it is an elitist art form, but that it is not “Irish”, and that is doesn’t belong to Irish culture, more of a recent import, like pasta, or avocado. This is, of course, not true and can be proven wrong in a number of ways, from noting the names of internationally renowned 19th- and 20th-century Irish opera composers and singers, to the fact that major European operas have had an audience in Ireland for at least the past couple of centuries.

Whatever one may believe, the launch of Irish National Opera on Tuesday tells us one thing for sure: opera has a bright future in Ireland. Continue reading on Bachtrack.

IRISH NATIONAL OPERA 2018 PROGRAMME

Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face
Irish National Opera will open its first season on Saturday 24 February 24th 2018 with leading contemporary composer Thomas Adès’s darkly comic, sexually-charged chamber opera, Powder Her Face. This pioneering work by one of the key compositional voices of our time will be seen in a co- production with NI Opera.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
The company’s first full-scale production will be Mozart’s comic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Patrick Mason. The title role is sung by the New Zealand-born Samoan baritone Jonathan Lemalu with mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Susanna, the object of his desire. Erraught returns to Ireland fresh from her acclaimed 2017 debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Marriage of Figaro will be seen at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, and the National Opera House, Wexford, from Friday 13 April.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice
Irish National Opera presents Gluck’s moving telling of the myth of the great musician Orfeo rescuing his wife Euridice from the Underworld in association with Galway International Arts Festival from Monday 23 July, in co-production with United Fall. The stylish mezzo soprano Sharon Carty stars in a production directed by leading dance theatre director Emma Martin.

Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s The Second Violinist
Irish National Opera will takes its award-winning production of Donnacha Dennehy’s The Second Violinist — a co-production with Landmark Productions, written and directed by Enda Walsh — to London’s Barbican Centre for three nights from Thursday 6 September.

You can read my review of this production here.

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann
The company’s new chamber version of Offenbach’s opéra fantastique The Tales of Hoffmann — an operatic take on the weird and wonderful Gothic world of German writer ETA Hoffmann — will tour to ten venues across the country from Friday 14 September. Soprano Claudia Boyle will be returning home to Ireland for the production fresh from the Salzburg Festival, where she is singing in Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids. Tom Creed directs.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle
Irish National Opera opens its first partnership with the Dublin Theatre Festival on Friday 12 October, in a presentation of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s operatic masterpiece, the broodingBluebeard’s Castle. It is directed by Enda Walsh who will, for the first time, direct an opera from the existing repertoire.

Verdi’s Aida
Irish National Opera last offering of 2018 opens on Saturday 24 November. It is an epic production in Dublin’s largest theatre, the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, of Verdi’s most spectacular opera, Aida. The powerful Dublin soprano Orla Boylan stars in the title role, and the production is directed by Michael Barker-Caven.

 

For more details on Irish National Opera 2018 programme and to buy tickets check www.irishnationalopera.ie