“La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina”, Abbey Theatre – Review

“La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina”, Abbey Theatre – Review

Every year the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) can be trusted to pick delightful if little known or little performed operas that span the whole four centuries of opera’s history up to new or newly commissioned work to showcase the achievements of their students. The evident double draw of these events is the discovery of both new talent and ‘new’ operas.      

This was the round of La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina (1625), the first known opera to have been written by a woman, the Medici court musician Francesca Caccini. What stands out listening to this work for the first time is the discovery of another of the many semi-hidden gems that opera history keeps giving us. Within a musical style that is very reminiscent of Monteverdi (the so called ‘stile moderno’), Caccini has her own voice, weaving beautiful melodies, incisive recitatives and seductive ‘canzonette’, as alluring as her “Siren’s song”. The most interesting historical fact, to me, is that this is the first opera – of the many more to come – whose plot is taken from the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516-1532), the masterpiece of Ludovico Ariosto.

The reason why the episode of the sorceress Alcina and the knight Ruggiero has had endless appeal throughout the centuries has to be found in the perfect metaphor that the story provides for the common but, at the same time, mysterious experience of being in love: falling in (and out of) love is exactly like falling under (and out) of a magic spell. The exact same object of veneration can become, in a moment, source of contempt (“No more I burn of love, I burn with disdain”; “Annoying to my eyes more than death” says Ruggiero of Alcina).

Director Hélène Montague – with the students of The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art for the set, costumes, lighting and make-up – put together a playfully modern version of the story with success. David Adams (at the harpsichord) conducted the students playing baroque instruments in an adaptation of the score, with the recorder solo of Daire O’Connell underlying nicely the ‘honeymoon’ phase of Ruggiero and Alcina. The singers generally rose to the challenge of baroque opera: if baroque style does not particularly strain the voice, it places an emphasis on the meaningful pronunciation of single words in the many recitatives.

12 RIAM student opera
(From bottom left)
Caroline Behan, Amie Dyer, Ava Dodd , Hailey-Rose Lynch, Breffni Fitzpatrick and Clodagh Kinsella (centre). ©Mark Stedman

Soprano Clodagh Kinsella was well cast as the beautiful Alcina, while Dylan Rooney displayed a promising baritone voice as Ruggiero. The authoritative role of Melissa would have ideally been taken by a contralto, but mezzo-soprano Aebh Kelly played her part well, especially in the scene where she brought Ruggiero ‘back to business’ from his enchanted state. To be noted, and contrary to what happens in opera in later centuries, that the ‘good woman’ (Melissa) is given here the low vocal range, while the evil sorceress is a soprano. Notwithstanding the explicit moralistic conclusion of the opera, which warns against the dangers of not controlling one’s own passions, for the whole opera it’s evil and error that have the sweetest sound (Alcina, the Siren).

A plethora of secondary roles left a strong impression, starting from Alcina’s Damsels and, in particular, soprano Caroline Behan. Megan O’Neill sang beautifully the most memorable aria of the opera, the – literally! – enchanting Siren’s song “Chi nel fior di giovinezza” (“Who, in the flower of youth”). Soprano Breffni Fitzpatrick was assured in the role of the Messenger, handling the recitatives very well both for phrasing and Italian pronunciation. Ava Dodd as the Formerly Enchanted Lady towards the end closed the opera with impact, together with the strong final chorus. Tenor Vladimir Sima, finally, was very expressive in the role of the Shepherd, showing an excellent control of the singing and superior ease with the Italian.

*Picture: Soprano Megan O’Neill. © Mark Stedman





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.

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.