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.

Rigoletto, Wexford Festival Opera, 22/10/17 – Review

Extract of my review published on Bachtrack on 25/10/17.

As well as fully staging each year three rare or forgotten works at the National Opera House, Wexford Festival Opera also has a series called “ShortWorks”, matinée shows held at the Clayton Whites Hotel that include either rare one act operas or shortened versions of standard length, mainstream operas. Even in a festival like Wexford’s, you cannot resist the attraction of a beloved opera that you know by heart. These shows have generally only piano accompaniment. Surtitles are provided, but don’t sit at the far sides of the room or you won’t be able to see them! Continue reading on Bachtrack.

Risurrezione, Wexford Festival Opera, 21/10/17 – Review

Extract of my review published on Bachtrack on 23/10/17.

Franco Alfano’s name is inextricably linked to that of Puccini, as he’s mostly remembered for completing the unfinished score of Turandot, and has overshadowed his own operas. Composed in 1903, Risurrezione was first performed in November 1904, nine months after the première of Madama Butterfly. The subject is taken from the last of Tolstoy’s novels by the same title (“Resurrection”) and is loosely adapted in the libretto, which skims most of the moral tribulations of the protagonist Prince Dimitri to focus on the more classic, personal drama of the seduced-and-abandoned ingénue. So far so Madama Butterfly. Continue reading on Backtrack.

“Eithne” Review, National Concert Hall, Dublin 14/10/17

“Eithne” Review, National Concert Hall, Dublin 14/10/17

As much as Festivals like Wexford’s have accustomed us to forgotten operatic works, an Irish opera with a libretto in Irish was something practically unheard of. Eithne, composed in 1909 by Robert O’Dwyer on libretto by Tomás Ó Ceallaigh, is the first opera written in Irish, and was born as part of the Irish language revival between late 19th century and early 20th century. The score went lost for more than one hundred years, and finally rediscovered in 2012. Opera Theatre Company, with a great research input by baritone Gavan Ring, brought back to life this work on the 14th of October at the National Concert Hall.

Gavan Fergus
Baritone Gavan Ring and conductor Fergus Sheil. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

The untold fear about this resurrection was that the opera would hold little more than a historic significance, and would be of special interest only for Irish speakers and Irish language enthusiasts. But this was absolutely not the case.

The subject of the opera is, fittingly, a mythological one and revolves around various family wrangles and a spell to be broken by love. Given the plot’s substantial staticity, the choice of having a concert performance rather than a full staging was probably a good one. But while the plot is quite flimsy and would easily alienate a modern audience, the beautiful words in the libretto (English subtitles were very helpful here!) bring the story much closer to us. If you then scratch the surface of any myth, you will always find universal human stories and feelings: in this case, siblings’s rivalry, treachery and virtue, anger and forgiveness, love longed for and finally found.

Musically, the score follows the trail of late 19th century music and is much closer to the German rather than to the Italian style. Although there were some very beautiful soloist parts, like Nuala’s aria in the first act (”When the sky is hidden by cloud”), or Cert’s one in the second act (“For years throughout my youth”), it’s the powerful choruses that always stole the scene, when galloping at full throttle together with the orchestra.

Imelda Brendan Eamonn
Mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm, baritone Brendan Collins and tenor Eamon Mulhall. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

As for the cast and the performance, there was no sparing of talent, nor energy. Some of the best Irish singers, both younger and more established, were present in the evening. Renowned soprano Orla Boylan was Eithne while Gavan Ring was the High King of Ireland. This low baritone’s role was possibly stretching a bit Ring’s higher tessitura, but nonetheless you could sense his pleasure in being there as the soul of the show.

Robin Tritschler (as Eithne’s lover Cert) gave a stunning performance and delighted with his exquisite lyric tenor voice. Mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm’s voice left a lasting impression in the role of Nuala, and one would hope to see more of her on stage. Very familiar on Irish stages, bass John Molloy was a reliable choice for the role of the giant, and his entrance in the second act shook the air with his vocal and acting energy. Given the limited scope of the roles, you could not perhaps fully appreciate here two very fine singers, tenor Eamon Mulhall and baritone Brendan Collins (respectively the brothers Neart and Art).

John Molloy & Robin Tritschler
Bass John Molloy and tenor Robin Tritschler. Photo by Ros Kavanagh.

The OTC chorus was outstanding throughout. Although you cannot identify individual singers’ voices in a chorus, this can never be more than the sum of its parts, and I was not surprised of spotting in it fine young singers like soprano Kelley Lonergan and mezzo Eimear McCarty Luddy. Finally, the National Symphony Orchestra was in gleaming form under conductor Fergus Sheil.

And what about Irish as a language for opera? It did work; although, as this ‘experiment’ demonstrates, as long as great music is present – like it was in this case – the libretto is secondary. Of course, for those who understand Irish, experiencing an opera sung in Irish must have been something quite unique and rewarding.

 

The Second Violinist Review – 2/10/17, O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin

The Second Violinist Review – 2/10/17, O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin

The Second Violinist, by composer Donnacha Dennehy and librettist Enda Walsh, is an uncommonly complex and multilayered work labelled as ‘opera’ but shaped as a fusion of opera, theatre and cinema.

Its peculiarity lies in the very contemporary setting, which has a surprising effect on the audience and the result is refreshingly grotesque. The rich heritage of an art form like opera loudly clashes with the triviality of modern, everyday life: the little wars that can spoil a marriage, the frustrations of work, the omnipresent technology, the awkwardness and fake closeness created by social media. In the words of Walsh, this work deals with “the suburban, the inconsequentialness of people’s lives”. No better or clearer metaphor for the senseless routine than the image of the treadmill, centrally placed on the stage, and on which all of the characters walk, alternatively, during the show.

But this triviality, initially portrayed with humour, even comically, soon turns into heavier matter: a progressive mental breakdown of the protagonist with tragic outcomes. The second violinist, played dynamically by Aaron Monaghan in a silent role, lives in a world where dreams are broken and love is unattainable, while (spiritual) youth is only a distant memory. “And love it bleeds in the dirt […] it rots in the dirt”, gloomily sings the chorus.

The strength of this opera lies in its modern themes and in their effective portrayal through music: loneliness in spite of an uninterrupted flow of communication, a sense of failure and  lost identity, alienation. These themes intertwine with a more traditional one (going back, in theatre, at least to Tennessee Williams): that of a mythical lost youth, here exemplified in the character of Amy, the wife (Sharon Carty) and her counterpart, her unmarried, carefree friend Hanna (Máire Flavin).

Sharon Carty in Landmark Production and Wide Open Opera's production The Second Violinist pic 44 photo by Patrick Redmond
Sharon Carty as Amy in The Second Violinist. Photo Patrick Redmond

The recalled image of Amy, as a student, naturally letting her dress slip down on a river’s bank to reveal her naked body, evokes precisely that of a legendary nymph; so much so that Martin, Amy’s husband (Benedict Nelson), cannot reconcile this image with the way he knows his wife, now chiefly preoccupied and absorbed in interior decoration projects (incidentally, the grey chosen for the apartment’s walls is here more than a choice dictated by the latest fashion, and meaningfully resonates with the mood of the story). Hanna’s sinuously shaped and flowing dress, also, bears more than a casual hint to the ancient Greek female iconography: she is a sort of winged Nike of Samothrace as she enters the story to rescue Amy from her dull life.

From a musical point of view, dissonance defines the score, with heavy percussions and jarring and oppressive strings. This is an utterly original work, but, to give you an idea, think Bernard Hermann’s Psycho’s soundtrack. Without the melody part.

Like a sophisticated cameo, both the libretto and the music are disseminated with more or less explicit references to singular Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, whose sublime music and troubled life, Dennehy said, inspired the opera.

While the protagonist quotes Gesualdo’s madrigal “Già piansi nel dolore” as his favourite, it’s another madrigal that gives away the reading key of the whole opera: “Beltà, poi che t’assenti” (which appears on screen in its English translation):

Beltà, poi che t’assenti,
Come ne porti il cor, porta i tormenti.
Chè tormentato cor può ben sentire
La doglia del morire,
E un’alma senza core
Non può sentir dolore.

It is unfortunately impossible to translate into English the beauty of the archaic Italian words and syntax, but this more or less reads:

Beauty, because you are missing,

Bring away my torments, as well as my heart.

As a tormented heart can well feel

The pain of dying,

But a soul without a hearth

Can feel no pain.

What we are witnessing here is, possibly, the genesis of a monster. The madrigal, which is originally a love poem, takes on a whole new meaning. The fleeting beauty is not a woman (or not only), but the beauty of living, the beauty of youth and juvenile dreams. As a mounting sense of existential failure and apathy conquers the protagonist, cynicism sets in and tragedy ensues.

Performances on the opening night were strong across the board. Soprano Máire Flavin confirmed her trademark to be a blend of powerful scenic presence and a distinctive, mellifluous, honey-like timbre. Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty was simply outstanding, sharp and touching at the same time. Benedict Nelson had a full, resounding baritone voice. With all their individual qualities, you may have perhaps wished for a more marked, perceivable difference in the female characters’ voice ranges and timbre, as to immediately identify the spiritually old, disillusioned Amy (mezzo) from the ‘younger’ and lively Hanna (soprano). The young American conductor Ryan McAdams directed with energy, confidence and ease the Crash Ensemble, bringing to life the score’s full depth and complexity.

This production is certainly remarkable but not without some minor flaws. The narrative structure may not be that obvious from the start (is it flashbacks we are seeing, or two coexisting stories?), and that’s where, maybe, the common cinema trope of the flashback may have been taken a step too far in this work. Whether we want to read this ambiguity as a function of the protagonist’s alienated mind or not, the staging still works against narrative clarity, and falls victim of redundant, contemporary cinema-like plot complications.  

The libretto, while thematically inspired and perfectly sustaining the dark mood of the opera, wants for lyrical sharpness. This is no fault of the author, who is a prose and not a poetry writer. These are quite two different languages, each with its own merits; but the latter adapts much better to opera, allowing it to fulfill its nature of uniquely soul-piercing art.

Even so, this is utterly powerful, original and gripping work, with brilliant music at its core underpinning all the coexisting sensorial threads. All of the essential elements of opera are intact here: universality, tragedy, heartrending emotion. This is that type of artistic experience that lingers in your head, making you want to go back to it to decode it and unearth its richness.

In spite of the themes’ heaviness and the atmosphere’s darkness, there is an inherent freshness to this work, a surprising lightness to it: it’s the lightness of fearless, risk-taking creativity. Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh prove that opera is anything but dead, and Ireland may be proud to show the world how it’s done.

 

The Second Violinist is produced by Landmark Productions and Wide Open Opera. It has first been presented at the Galway International Arts Festival last July and it was the winner of the Fedora Generali Prize for Opera in 2017. It will run as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until October 8 at the O’Reilly Theatre.