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.

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