Vampirella – Smock Alley Theatre 23/3/17 – Review

Vampirella – Smock Alley Theatre 23/3/17 – Review

Vampirella, a new chamber opera by composer Siobhán Cleary on libretto by Katy Hayes and based on a radio play by Angela Carter, premiered on the 23rd of March at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. The opera was written for and performed by RIAM students, in a collaboration with the The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art.

The story is about a lady vampire and a naive English young man on a bike trip across the Carpathians who ends up in the vampire’s castle much like it happens in Stoker’s Dracula.   

This production had a very theatrical, almost cinematographic quality to it, in that the visual component of the work was as important as the musical part, and the music was strictly intertwined with the dramatic action, as a close commentary on it. Both costumes (by Maree Kearns) and lighting (by Kevin Smith) were impressive and hugely contributed to the atmosphere of the show.

The story itself and the libretto are characterised by a constant mix of the horror belonging to the classic vampire repertoire and the comic, mainly in the role of Hero (Philip Keegan), but also in that of the governess (Eimear McCarthy Luddy).

The coexistence of tragic (or horror) and comic in the same opera might work extremely well, (Don Giovanni by Mozart is a great example of this). But this balance is very hard to maintain in an opera and the potential grotesque effect might come at the expense of authenticity. Take, for example, the “bedroom” scene: one of the few places in the opera where you are almost feeling sorry for Vampirella and her necessary bloodlust, is completely spoilt by the series of jokes of psychoanalytical background: like when Hero, in response to her vampiresque, erotically charged advances, slaps her and says: “The cure to hysteria!”, and then, “I should bring you to Vienna!”. It’s funny, but was this the place for fun? There’s probably only so much space for intellectual divertissement in opera, and this was, most definitely, a complete anticlimax.

From a musical point of view, there was some beautiful and quite original composition, with harp and flute often in the foreground. Vocally, two were the most powerful scenes: the already mentioned “bedroom” scene (although spoilt in the described way), with the voice of Vampirella (soprano Sarah Brady) soaring to touching heights, and the final chorus, accompanying Hero dying under the bombs of World War II.

This opera surely works when seen in a theatre, thanks to the synergy of all the theatrical tools. But what if we strip it down to its bare musical elements? How would this opera sound on a CD? Because, one could argue, opera should stand to what I call “the CD test”: voice and music should be self sufficient and, although the theatrical props are a nice addition, they should never be essential to the creation of real emotion.

Wonderful exhibition for all the family in Dun Laoghaire library LexIcon.

Wonderful exhibition for all the family in Dun Laoghaire library LexIcon.

If you are looking for something to do next Sunday (26th of March) with your kids, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the delightful exhibition at the LexIcon library in Dun Laoghaire: A World of Colour: The Art of Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton. The artwork on display will appeal to adults and children alike.

World of Colour JPEG

The exhibition indirectly raises the question: is this decorative art, or is this art, tout court? If we include in the definition of art a distinctively original way of portraying reality, a way that provides not only aesthetic gratification but makes you stop and wonder, then many of these artworks may well fit this purer category.

With their utterly different – in fact quite opposite – styles, Beatrice Alemagna and Chris Haughton have published several award winning illustrated books. Where Haughton’s work is characterised by block colours and a sophisticated naivety, Alemagna’s one, in contrast, is marked by meticulousness of detail and a special instance of magic realism.  One example for all, from one of Beatrice Alemagna’s books: look at the way the buildings and shops of Paris are portrayed in “The wonderful fluffy little squishy”: the children will delight in all the colourful images, while the adults who’ve seen Paris will be catapulted back there (and long for another visit!) by virtue of an imaginative reinvention of reality, by the dreaming yet powerful capturing of the beauty and uniqueness of that city. One thing is for sure: these are images that stand on their own and deserve to be lifted from the reductive label of “illustrations”.

What is a Child_lowrescoverThe exhibition is on until the 31st of March. As part of the Mountain to Sea dlr Book Festival, on Sunday the 26th of March there will be free family tours of the exhibition at 2.00 pm and 2.30 pm, followed at 3.00 pm by a meeting with the two illustrators and book signing.

If you’ve never visited the LexIcon library in Dun Laoghaire, this is the perfect occasion and the library is an attraction in itself. With all the controversy that preceded and followed its construction, related to its cost and its architectural appropriateness in this heritage town, this is a beautiful and exemplary public space, where architecture and design blissfully serve the function of cultural hub and community aggregator. Look for the designer “Swan” chairs on the third floor (the same as the exhibition) and go up to the fourth floor for a wonderful view of Dun Laoghaire bay.

Recommended as well a stop at the Brambles library café  downstairs. This is a very simple café (no jazz music in the background!), but the staff are lovely and the atmosphere very relaxed, making it ideal for families.

Carmen, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin 1/3/2017 – Review

Published on on 2/3/17

Carmen, on at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from the 1st to the 5th of March, is produced by International Leisure and Arts which brings once more a large scale Russian company to Ireland, this time the Moscow State Opera.

Celine Byrne, as the only Irish singer, features in the role of Micaëla. There’s no doubt the Irish soprano’s name is the one that keeps drawing the crowds to this big theatre, which on the opening night was full. If you’ve never had the chance to listen to her wonderfully luscious voice, you will feel sorry that you are seeing her for the first time in Carmen (due to the very limited soprano role); but the flawlessly executed main character’s aria in the third act “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” is worth, alone, the price of the ticket.

The set design is strongly Picasso-themed: from the gigantic stage curtains made by panels reproducing Picasso’s posters for the Vallauris Exhibition in the ‘50s, to a big panel hanging for the whole first act representing the cover of the book by bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín “Picasso Toros Y Toreros”, to the paintings in final scene taking the whole background. Now, I understand Picasso was Spanish. And I do understand the paintings chosen all have bulls and bullfighters as a subject. But that’s where my understanding of the references ends. The strong visual anachronism of these modern artworks is not functional to the audience’s immersion in the story, which is set in the early nineteenth century, and it’s not that the Georgy Isaakyan’s direction transposes the action in the middle of the twentieth century; so the jarring juxtaposition remains, unexplained, serving no purpose other than that of an irrelevant, distracting decoration.

Even for a conservative audience, modernisation of popular operas can be a tolerable thing, or even welcome, if they add a layer of understanding or new meaning to the original story. We’ve seen very worthy examples of this in 2016 in Dublin, with The Barber of Seville by Wide Open Opera and with Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company; but these two productions carried an internal coherence that is instead lacking here.

As for the singing, mezzo-soprano Nadezhda Babintseva (playing Carmen) had an impressive voice, with the perfect sultry timbre and the broad range needed for the role; but very few moments in her performance were enlightened by the sparkle of authenticity: most of the time you could perceived a tiredness about her role, and you had a strong feeling that her soul was not on the stage with her voice. Her best moment was arguably in the duet with Don Jose towards the end of the first act (“Tout doux, Monsieur, tout doux.”).

Carmen is a very physical role, but here also you were let down by the lack of an appropriate direction, with the protagonist passively sitting down on a bench when you would have expected her standing or dancing. An example of this sort of out of synch direction is the start of the second act, at Lillas Pastias’ tavern: the start of her “Chanson bohème” should see Carmen at least standing, if not really dancing from the beginning of the song, like clearly indicated by the descriptive text in the libretto (“Elle se lève tout à coup et se met à chanter.”). An even more painful example is the final scene, a dramatic anticlimax between the overwhelming, quickly changing and distracting Picasso’s paintings in the background, the consequently dwarfing effect that these had on the couple’s impending tragedy and the staticity on stage of Babintzeva.

Only praise could instead be sung about the Armenian tenor playing Don José, Hovhannes Ayvazyan, whose voice had a distinctive lyrical tone and whose interpretation was heartfelt and convincing throughout. The famous aria “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” was truly moving and perfectly executed.

Noteworthy were also the smugglers and gypsies quintet in the second act and the “cards” trio in the third.

Alexey Dedov in the role of Escamillo could work on his French pronunciation.

The collective choral scenes were vocally incisive and satisfying, but visually perhaps less so: while it’s difficult to comment on the historical authenticity of the costumes’ colours, from a dramatic point of view the low saturation of the pastels wasn’t really in line with the strong tints of the story.
Overall, there were very good moments in the evening, worthy of world-class theatre; for future performances and productions, we only hope for more soul and passion being poured into this work by the director and some of the singers.