“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.

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.

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

Spectacular Strauss from Nathalie Stutzmann and the RTÉ NSO

Extract of my review published on Bachtrack.com on 4/12/17.

Two contraltos in one room is a high concentration of contraltos; except that one of them appeared in the role of conductor. Recently appointed RTÉ Principal Guest Conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann directed two very different works spinning around the theme of death and the peace found through it by men: Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Mozart’s Requiem.

The program juxtaposed just about opposite ends of the musical spectrum: the impure, modern, descriptive music of a tone poem versus the purity of the most classical of composers…  Continue reading on Bachtrack.

Dubliners, Samuel Becket Theatre, 9/11/17 – Review

Dubliners, Samuel Becket Theatre, 9/11/17 – Review

Andrew Synnott’s and Arthur Riordan’s Dubliners is a masterclass in stage adaptation, with a sense of the theatre not always seen in opera productions. That’s, on one hand, the experienced touch of theatre director Annabelle Comyn, helped by excellent costumes, set and lighting design.

The libretto by Arthur Riordan, in turn, exudes intelligence, wit and refinement. The Irish subject gets here stressed by some vernacular inflections (like “Jaysus” or “me” instead of “my”). Riordan’s philological – often literal – approach to Joyce’s text finds a creative twist in his ingenious metaphors and puns (“Her people were butchers by trade./She knows where a cut must be made” or Polly that was “a typist for a spell”).

But all the liberties he takes with the source material are incredibly measured and never stray from the essence of the story. Last but not least, Riordan – admirably for a playwright – tries very hard to use poetry rather than prose, if not by creating perfectly accented hendecasyllables, at least by using regular rhyming and roughly same-length verses.

Andrew Synnotts’s score, written for piano and four strings, aptly conveys the feelings of the two stories: frustration and anger for “Counterparts”, social anxieties with touches of romance for “The Boarding House”. The coupling of piano and cello in some passages is distinctively modern.

All of the young singers in the cast played their part well. Cormac Lawlor gave his acting best as Farrington. Emma Nash brought to three-dimensional life all the roles she covered, Polly in particular. The use of mezzo-soprano Anna Jeffers in a trousers role (in “Counterparts”) for a contemporary opera was slightly confusing, but she was brilliant in the part of the scheming mother in “The boarding House”. David Howes enriched the role of Jack with his warm timbre and his natural acting skills.    

I have only one remark. I don’t want to sound old fashioned, but is it anachronistic to expect a clear succession of recitatives and arias in contemporary operas? I’ll leave out the question of the self-sufficient, striking beauty of a single aria. Nonetheless, I’ll keep looking for both, trustingly, in future works.

“Dubliners” is a co-production of Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival Opera.

La Traviata, National Concert Hall, 4/11/17 – Review

“I honestly do not have much appetite for reimagining classical masterpieces […]. Too much opera is juggled around needlessly” declared Lyric Opera’s artistic director Vivian Coates in an interview. In the production of La Traviata staged at the NCH he remained true to this and, even though the costumes belong to the 20th rather than the 19th century, this is in fact a substantially classic take on the work.

But the pitfalls of staging such a well known and well loved opera are plentiful, even with a traditional production. Too many great recordings fill your ears. What seems like a safe bet – the choice of possibly the most popular among popular operas – can easily become a minefield when it comes to pleasing the audience.

La Traviata is pure operatic dynamite; but it still needs ignition. For the whole first act the wick would stubbornly not be lightened. All of the visual and vocal elements mysteriously compounded in a lukewarm result.

Luckily things picked up right from the start of the second act (“Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!”) and then with the entrance of Charles Johnston as Giorgio Germont. The party scene – specular to the one in the first act – was a highlight. Here everything worked very well: the now sensibly monochrome costumes (as opposite to the multicoloured ones in the first act), the excellently executed chorus “Noi siamo zingarelle”, the more convincing scene between Violetta and Alfredo and the vehement chorus “Oh, infamia orribile tu commettesti!”. The third act was equally good and truly moving, and passed the melted-mascara test.

What about Violetta? Having listened for the first time to Claudia Boyle in a concert last July in Castletown House, I was delighted to hear that she was going to play in La Traviata (this is actually not her first time with Lyric Opera) and I had quite high expectations. The program of that concert was very varied, ranging from opera arias, to Schubert’s songs, to musical. Accompanied by the piano, she was excellent in every single piece. I was smitten by her voice, her vocal control, her acting abilities and her grace. She also sang on that occasion the long recitative and aria “E’ strano, e’ strano” and she left a very good impression.

I was therefore a bit taken aback by the different impression I had watching her singing in the whole opera and with an orchestra last Saturday. She certainly possesses a complete control of her instrument and displays effortless high pitches and brilliant coloratura; but, I believe, she lacks the dramatic weight and darker colour required by this – agreed, impossibly demanding – role.

On the other hand, even one of her distinctive features, her acting ability, here seemed to play against her: possibly the result of directorial choices, her performance felt, overall, between the overacted and the perfunctory. She is a great singer, no shadow of a doubt about it. But, to me, she was not Violetta for most of the night. That said, she sang a convincing “Addio, del passato”, her evening highlight for me.

Quite committed, in the role of Alfredo, seemed tenor Alexander James Edward, with his alluring warm timbre. At least two voices stood out among the secondary roles: first of all the rich mezzo of Mihaela Lorendana Chirvase as Flora, and then the bass-baritone of Matthew Mannion as Marchese D’Obigny. Who stole the show was Charles Johnston as Giorgio Germont, his strong Verdi baritone perfectly fulfilling the role and leaving almost nothing to be desired.

The reliable RTE Concert Orchestra was smartly directed by Timothy Burke, like shown, for instance, in the quietly played, heartrending but treacherous “Amami Alfredo” bit. The prelude to the third act felt very delicate but fell slightly flat, as if the ever soft strings conveyed the sadness of the approaching death but lacked the remaining emotional undertones in the score: the sudden joy, the short, untimely resurgence of hope, its final, tragic vanishing.

With any flaw the production may have had, it was an overall good show and we should not forget that, if it wasn’t for Lyric Opera and the passionate commitment of Vivian Coates, Dublin audiences could not experience a traditional, local production of a mainstream opera like La Traviata, and we should therefore be grateful for that.