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.

 

 

 

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

“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.