Griselda at Solstice Arts Centre

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) is best known today for his collection of Violin concertos ‘The Four Season’, they are among some of the best known and loved tunes in orchestral music. Although he was a very prolific composer who achieved great success and fame during his lifetime and is virtually a household name today, after his death his music fell out of favour and was rarely performed. Despite the popularity of his music and his success as an impresario he died in poverty in Vienna and was buried in a municipal grave, just as Mozart was fifty years later. Interest in his work was rekindled in the 20th century with a large number of previously lost manuscripts being found and he returned to public recognition with violinist Nigel Kennedy’s hugely successful 1989 recording of The Four Seasons. Although best known for his concertos, sonatas & sacred music Vivaldi appears to have written about 50 operas, many of which are lost or survive in fragments only. Griselda is one of his later operas first performed in Venice in 1735 where for many years he had been music teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà orphanage for girls.

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Antonio Vivaldi and cover of the libretto from Teatro San Samuele in Venice where Griselda has it’s premiere in 1735.

As is often the case with opera the story of Griselda, by librettist Carlo Goldoni and based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’, is a complicated one of convoluted relationships, misunderstandings and mistaken identities with a healthy dollop of tragedy. But at least a saving grace in this case is a broadly happy ending! Gualtiero, King of Thessaly, dismisses his queen, Griselda, as his people are unhappy with her being queen because she is a commoner (as presumably most of them are). Her replacement, unknown to anyone, is Constanza their daughter who is believed to be dead. Griselda is heart-broken and tormented by the misfortune that has befell her and to make matters worse she has attracted the unwanted attentions of Ottone who pursues her to the point of threatening to kill her other child Everardo (possibly not the best romantic overture but this is opera!). Tragedy and misfortune continually pursue Griselda but as she slips into grief and despair she never loses her love for Gualtiero. Eventually on seeing how loyal and virtuous she is the king invites her back to be his queen once again.

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Stage set for Griselda with Katie Bray, showing the two tier arrangement, cctv screens and wonderful placed surtitles.

The stage was an unfussy two tiered affair, state room above and building site below which accentuated the upstairs-downstairs divide. A security office stage left had a bank of cctv monitors which showed various action on and off stage. A very imaginative touch which accentuated the oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere of continual surveillance. It may be a side issue for many but a bugbear of mine can be surtitles but in this production, which was sung in Italian, they were excellent. The stage design allowed for them to be mid stage, literally right in the centre of the action. Absolutely wonderful & really adding to the enjoyment of the opera.

On front of the packed theatre the Irish Baroque Orchestra was conducted by Peter Whelan at the harpsichord. Noticeable from even the back of the theatre was the long neck of a theorbo amongst the players and the occasional addition of horn players stage right. Despite the proximity of the musicians to the audience the volume of the beautiful music wasn’t overpowering and the singing could be clearly heard from the stage.

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On top Jorge Navarro Colorado, Katie Bray, & Raphaela Mangan. Emma Morwood, Russell Harcourt & Sinéad O’Kelly below.

And that brings me on to the undoubted highlight of this production. The singing was outstanding in beauty, quality and technical ability. It was such a treat to hear this quality of vocal performance from all the singers. Tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado was a regal and confident King Gualtiero. Right from the Act I aria ‘Se ria procella sorge dall’onde’ (If a wicked storm rises from the waves) his excellent voice and powerful delivery were obvious. Taking the title role mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, audience prize winner at this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World, was at home and convincing as the slowly disintegrating Griselda. The intensity and passion in her voice wonderfully captured her distress and disillusion as her world collapses.

Soprano Emma Morwood brought wonderful bling, vim and sparkle to her role as Constanza as she struggled to contain the frustrations of her lover Roberto played by counter-tenor Russell Harcourt. Hearing the intensity and clarity of a good counter tenor singing in a high register can be quite surprising to many listeners. The power & clarity of Russell’s voice was a joy to listen to. Raphaela Mangan, another talented mezzo-soprano, was aloof and detached patrolling the palace as Corrado.

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Russell Harcourt as Roberto and Emma Morwood as Constanza.

If I had to pick a favourite hue among the incredibly colourful palate of voices and performances the audience were treated to it would be mezzo-soprano Sinéad O’Kelly’s performance as Ottone.  She perfectly balanced the cruel malevolence and romantic yearning of her character with a convincing & natural stage presence allied to an incredibly rich, powerful and dynamic voice. She really was quite spectacular.  The sheer beauty, talent and richness of all the singing in this production can’t be overstated.

Sinád O’Kelly sings ‘Dopo un’orrida procella’ from Act III of Griselda.

This was certainly one of the most enjoyable operas I have attended. Occasionally you can find yourself glancing at your watch towards the end of a production but at just over two hours I wished this sparkling musical and vocal celebration could have went on much longer. It really was that good. The resounding approval of the audience and the standing ovation was richly deserved… I loved it.

Vagabones at An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk

Vagabones is Raymond Deane’s fourth opera. ‘The Poet and his Double’ and ‘The Wall of Cloud’ were both shorter chamber pieces. These were followed by the full length work ‘The Alma Fetish’ which takes the tempestuous affair between painter Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler as its subject. Vagabones is based on the play Trespasses by Emma Donoghue with a libretto by Renate Debrun. It reimagines events that occurred in Youghal, Co. Cork in 1661. Florence Newton, an elderly woman who has fallen on hard times is accused of bewitching Mary Longdon the maid of prominent local gentleman John Pyne. The opera is set during Newton’s imprisonment awaiting trial and we learn of the events which have lead to her incarceration.

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Composer Raymond Deane and Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Trespasses’ on which Vagabones is based.

Raymond Deane, who’s work I am not familiar with aside from listening to some pieces online before attending this performance, is an Irish composer who studied for a time under Karlheinz Stockhausen and is probably best known for his piece ’Seachanges’ which has been on the Leaving Certificate music syllabus for some years.

The rather small attendance at An Táin Arts Centre were greeted by a stage set that was quite bleak consisting of a dark back wall onto which was occasionally projected explanations of the unfolding scenes. This worked quite well but conversely a video screen displaying various images in the middle of the wall didn’t. The images didn’t seem to relate to the action on stage and using a video screen jarred with what was otherwise a very cohesive period set. 

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The cast with conductor Sinéad Hayes, composer Raymond Deane and members of Crash Ensemble.

The music was provided by Crash Ensemble, a group specialising in contemporary music,  under the baton of Sinéad Hayes. The 13 musicians included an accordion and a harp in a possible nod to the Irish context of the story and a percussionist surrounded by a large array of drums and chimes. (this set a mildly concerning tone before the opera even started). An issue which often surfaces when larger ensembles perform in smaller regional venues soon made its presence felt. The voices on stage being drowned out by the sheer volume from musicians sitting right in front of the audience over which performers had to sing. 

(I have been to a number of venues, e.g. the Samuel Beckett Theatre, where the musicians are placed behind the performers or upstage which in smaller venues alleviates this problem but some venues cannot accommodate this setup and it limits the type of backdrop a stage set can have)

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Rory Musgrave as the Mayor and Carolyn Holt as Florence Newton.

I didn’t in all honesty warm to the music. I’m not a big fan of dissonance and the lack of harmony and beauty in a lot of modern orchestral music. I found Deane’s music very angular, prodding and percussive with very few passages that could be called attractive in a melodic or harmonic sense. The music was undoubtedly very expressive and certainly captured ones attention but to my ears it tended to the unappealing, repetitive and quite mathematical. Not the sort of music I could imagine listening to on its own. It was also problematic that some of the loudest and most percussive passages coincided with and overpowered the accompanying singing. Voice and music fought with each other for dramatic prominence. At times it was hard to hear anything the performers were singing at all. 

This leads me onto another issue. Although sung in English the possible lack of knowledge of the story among the audience and the competition at times between voice and music should have necessitated surtitles. This is not a criticism of this particular opera per se as I have been to numerous operas sung in English and it is the nature of the sometimes rather ‘unnatural’ metre of singing conversational dialogue and the pitch it is often sung at that can make it quite difficult to understand. Surtitles would have been a great advantage. 

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Kelli-Ann Masterson, Fionn Ó hAlmhain, Sarah Power & Ross Scanlon.

The highlight of this opera was without doubt the singing. The vocal quality on show was superb in both skill and range. All members of the cast were impressive with particular standouts for me being Carolyn Holt as Florence Newton, a strong, energetic and vibrant mezzo with a great stage presence. Ross Scanlon was a forceful and articulate John Pyne exuding the confidence of his role in presence & voice and Rory Dunne was very much in his character as the healer Valentine Greatrakes. Sarah Power as Mary Langdon had great vocal range but on occasion was a bit thin in the upper registers, Kelli-Ann Masterson again was very articulate and comfortable on stage as was Rory Musgrave as the often conflicted Mayor of Youghal. Vocal performances all round were very impressive and held the attention even though many of the musical passages were quite flat, lacked variety and were accompanied by an almost sung recitative style.

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Rory Dunne, Carolyn Holt & Rory Musgrave.

The story of Vagabones touches on issues of suspicion, fear and mistrust through the lens of the differences between a native community and the colonial community which lives among them. It exposes the tensions that exist when two different identities share the same space and the unfortunate consequences this can have. It did seem to present men in a rather bad light, the only redeeming male character (Dónal O’Dare) being played by a female and the possibly devious & dishonest behaviour of a female character (Mary Longdon) being the result of coercion or fear of rejection by men. A narrative that has certain cultural currency at the moment.

The evening was certainly educational and intriguing with outstanding singing but the music wasn’t to my taste and this certainly compromised my enjoyment. But it is still nonetheless wonderful to see new Irish operas being written and to witness  the singing and performing talent Ireland currently has. 

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Opera Collective Ireland’s website is here

Crash Ensemble’s website is here

La Dirindina by Domenico Scarlatti & Giovanni Martini.

An interesting little operatic vignette takes to the stage this month thanks to Northern Ireland Opera Studio, ‘La Dirindina’ by Domenico Scarlatti. The opera studio is a program to encourage young and emerging operatic talent by offering them experience in both staged productions and recitals. A pathway to performance for the future of opera in Ireland. 

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Domenico Scarlatti and Giovanni Battista Martini.

La Dirindina is a comic intermezzo composed as incidental entertainment to be performed during the interval of Scarlatti’s opera ‘Ambleto’.  Shortly before it’s premiere for the 1715 Carnival at the Teatro Capranica in Rome it was withdrawn after being banned by the Vatican censor. The issue seems to have been the rather scandalous libretto by esteemed but irreverent and satirical Tuscan playwright Girolamo Gigli. Printing of the libretto was forbidden but a copy was discovered by Giovanni Battista Martini (famous as a teacher of both J.C. Bach and Mozart) and he seems to have also contributed substantially to the music of the version performed today. The work was more recently rediscovered and edited by musicologist Francesco Degrada and a first recording was conducted by Riccardo Muti in Naples in 1968. It consists of eight recitatives and eight arias or trios.

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The first recording of ‘La Dirindina’ conducted by Riccardo Muti in 1968.

A satirical observation on contemporary musical and operatic life La Dirindina tells of the aspiring operatic singer of the title who is being tutored by the older Don Carissimo who seems more interested in his pupils physical attributes than her artistic ones. Needless to say, being an opera, an amorous young upstart in the form of Liscione arrives to thwart Don Carissimo’s plans. Dirindina is in love with Liscione (An operatic love triangle..!). Don Carissimo is vexed by the arrival of Liscione but even more so by the fact that he brings an invitation for Dirindina to perform at an opera house in Milan. Don Carissimo insists she is not ready but Liscione tells her to be successful doesn’t only depend on singing skills and proceeds to teach her how to use her womanly charms to progress in the music business (shock, horror!). He tutors her in a scene from Dido & Aeneas where Dido berates Aeneas for deserting her and for his unfaithfulness. The eavesdropping Don Carissimo thinks the acted scene is real and that Dirindina is about to commit suicide. When he sees it was only acting he is relieved to the point of blessing the young lovers, congratulating them and wishing them all the best to the amusement of  both Dirindina and Liscione.

Domenico Scarlatti who was son of the more famous operatic composer Alessandro Scarlatti is best remembered for his many keyboard sonatas and didn’t wander too often into the realm of composition for voice. That being said, this is a delightful if short piece of baroque fun and frivolity which is partly remembered for the scandal of it’s banning. Nonetheless La Dirindina contains some beautiful singing with each performer getting their time under the spotlight.

The Northern Ireland Opera Studio production features counter tenor Francesco Giusti as Dirindina, Rebecca Murphy as Liscione and Christopher Cull as Don Carissimo.

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Details of the Northern Ireland Opera Studio production are Here

The Medium by Menotti. TU Operatic Society.

Although considered to be an American composer Gian Carlo Menotti kept his Italian citizenship all his life. He also kept close musical ties to his mother country most famously through his ‘Festival dei Due Mondi’ which he started in Spolento in 1958. As a student he moved to America to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia were he met lifelong friend and colleague Samuel Barber. Menotti was a very talented musician from a young age and wrote his first opera ‘Amelia al Ballo’ when he was just 25. He had relatively local success with a number of his early operas but it was not until ‘The Medium’, composed in 1946, that he achieved considerable international recognition and fame. A lot of Menotti’s operatic works are considered by some to be musically derivative and overtly dramatic. A mix of Italian verismo and American Hollywood. But this was a blend that proved very popular and rewarding for Menotti with later works like ‘The Consul’, ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ and ‘The Saint of Bleecker Street’ achieving great international success. The Consul was a Pulitzer Prize winner and also the first American opera to be staged at La Scala in Milan.

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Gian Carlo Menotti

Though having great popular appeal many of Menotti’s works were shunned by the champions of modern musical trends. A contemporary observed:

‘Menotti has never written an original note in his life, and yet every note immediately has the signature of Menotti’

He was associated with what was seen as an outdated romanticism and lyricism while many of his contemporaries rushed headlong to embrace dissonance and serialism. Menotti was considered antiquated, a composer who especially in his later years was out of step with the musical establishment. This didn’t seem to bother Menotti too much and to quote the man himself:

‘Music history will place me somewhere, but that is no concern of mine’

The Medium is a short two act opera which has also been released as a film with contralto Marie Powers in the leading role. It tells the story of Madame Flora, called Bibi and the medium of the title, her daughter Monica and a mute boy called Toby. Bibi holds seances in her apartment where paying clients are fooled by the hidden voices and noises made by Monica and Toby as Bibi communicates with their dead children. During one seance Bibi feels hands around her neck and cries out. Her clients are amazed that she is so shaken by contact the dead, after all isn’t she a medium. When her clients have left she demands to know who touched her, rounding on Toby as he denies being responsible. Mental disintegration begins to overtake Bibi. Her heavy drinking and fears that her scam seances have annoyed the spirits cause her to become more irrational and aggressive.

Marie Powers sings ‘Afraid, am I Afraid?’ from the 1951 film version directed by Menotti.

At a second seance Bibi hears the voice of a clients dead child. At this, the now fearful and unhinged Bibi tells her clients of the scam, gives them back their money and demands they leave. In her fury at the games she believes are being played on her she savagely beats Toby and throws him out of the house.

That evening Toby sneaks back into the house to see Monica who has been locked in her room but he makes a noise waking the sleeping Bibi. She shouts and screams to know who is there and the petrified Toby hides behind a curtain. Bibi in fear grabs a gun and seeing the curtains move fires killing the figure behind. As Toby falls dead to the floor, his identity concealed by the curtains, Bibi sings ‘I’ve killed the ghost, I’ve killed the ghost’.

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The production I attended was presented by TU (Technical University) Dublin Operatic Society which was founded last year to give students the opportunity to produce and perform operas. Held in Gleeson Hall at the TU Kevin St. campus the stage backdrop was black with a punch & judy show centre stage. A chaise lounge and drinks table were stage right. The lead roles were taken by Rheanne Breen as Bibi, Ami Hewitt as Monica and Niamh McPhilips in the tacit role of Toby.

A stand out from the get go was Rheanne Breen. In the lead role so getting the most air time and spotlight, she used it well with a fabulous vocal and dramatic performance. Her resonant and powerful soprano voice rung out through the hall and even where I was in the back row, every syllable could be heard. Wonderful power and articulation. Her portrayal of the psychological disintegration of the alcoholic Bibi was strong and convincing. She owned the stage with confidence and skill.

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Rheanne Breen, Ami Hewitt & Niamh McPhilips.

Amy Hewitt was a convincing Monica, the fearful and dominated daughter. A confident stage presence with obvious performance skills, her character’s innocence was accentuated by her white victorian style child’s costume. Amy’s higher soprano voice was strong, bright and sparkling but occasionally lacked some clarity.

Niamh McPhilips was very convincing as the mute Toby. Because it is a tacit role she only had her dramatic performance to bring her character alive. Nonetheless she virtually sung Toby’s thoughts and emotions with her acting alone. It was more like a mime performance than simply a silent role and she portrayed a character as engaging and believable as those with vocal lines.    

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Sarah Luttrell, Jakob Mahase & Kayleigh Quinn.

The unfortunate and distraught clients of Madame Flora were played by Jakob Mahase and Kayleigh Quinn as Mr. & Mrs. Gobineau and Sarah Luttrell as Mrs. Nolan. All strong and impressive singers but given little room to shine in the rather limited scope of these roles.

This was an accomplished student production with excellent musicianship from the orchestra under the baton of  Grace Bergin and confident singing and performances on stage. On foot of the wonderfully successful launch of Opera Ireland last year and a renewed and revived interest in opera a new student opera company can only be welcomed and encouraged. There is a wonderful well of talent both on and off stage in these truly exciting times for opera in Ireland.

 

Orfeo ed Euridice in concert

Looking back through the lens of today it’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary the operatic innovations of Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were for audiences in the late 18th century. There were established rules and norms about what opera should be about and how it should be presented. It was a fairly locked down formula and deviating from it was not only creatively perilous but also risked courting the displeasure of the royalty & nobility who funded the whole operatic endeavour. In a nutshell being too radical could mean failure and poverty.

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Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck and Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. The architects of ‘Reform Opera’.

It was in this atmosphere that Gluck, an established and quite successful composer decided to embark on a project we now call his reform operas. Starting off with Orfeo ed Euridice in 1862 a series of highly successful operas retooled the operatic workshop and set in motion a sea change in operatic themes and presentation. They set about stripping opera of its unnecessary ornamentation, virtuoso adornments, excessive passages and dance scenes all of which they believed hindered the telling of the story. A refocusing on the reality of the drama and the most effective and fluid telling of that story became the priority. To instate a ‘Nobel Simplicity’ as de’ Calzabigi called it.

Orpheus and Eurydice (1862) by Edward Poynter

Orpheus and Eurydice by Edward Poynter.

The story of Orfeo and his wife Euridice is a well-known one from Greek mythology. Orfeo who can thrill man and beast alike with his music finds the body of his beloved wife Euridice and laments her death. Even the gods are overcome by the beauty and sadness of his music so they allow him to go to the underworld to bring her back to earth (what a comment on the power of music). The only condition is that he can not look at or speak to her. After again charming the gate keepers of hades with his music he leads his beloved back to life but on the way she looses heart because he will not look at or speak to her. His resolve weakened and wanting to console and reassure her he turns to look at her and she again dies before him. But true to form as he sings one of the most beautiful arias in opera over her body the gods again relent and restore her to life ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ (What shall I do without Euridice). I know what you’re thinking, an opera with a happy ending!

Janet Baker sings ‘Che farò senza Euridice’

This was a concert performance in St. Peters church in Drogheda so no costumes, no sets, no acting and as relating to this opera in particular, no dancing. Mezzo Soprano Sharon Carty was engaging and in full voice as Orfeo and Soprano Sarah Power an excellent Euridice. Emma Nash took the part of Amore and the wonderful acoustics in the church did the voices of the main characters and the chorus proud. The Irish Baroque orchestra conducted from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan gave an enthusiastic and solid performance.

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This was a stripped down version of a fully staged and choreographed production Irish National Opera are touring at the moment with United Fall dance company. Despite the fact that the singing and playing were wonderful I don’t really think a concert setting of this full opera worked all that well. Most operatic concert performances will be a selection of pieces possibly built round a theme, many of which the audience may already know or a full opera which is semi-staged with costume and some contextual setting. A classical work like this, even though it is not overly long at 1.5 hours, being sung in Italian with no staging robbed it of too much context and entertainment for it to be successful. It was a bit of a marathon to have no accompanying drama and indeed no interval. Having said that it was wonderful to have this seminal work from the operatic canon performed in Drogheda by such talented musicians and singers.

DIT Conservatory present ‘…Tancredi e Clorinda’

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is a fascinating little piece of musical drama (see previous post). Written in 1624 shortly after Opera as we know it was born, began flexing its limbs and realised its ability to capture attention and imagination. Opera was moving out of the palaces of royalty and nobility, spreading its wings and becoming an entertainment for a paying public. Venice was the cradle of the democratisation of this nascent art form and it was there that Claudio Monteverdi wrote this 30 minutes of musical combat. The DIT Conservatory of Music & Drama presented it at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin as part of a baroque double with Henry Purcell’s early English classic Dido & Aeneas.

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Smock Alley Theatre & the main performance space.

Smock Alley Theatre has been recently refurbished and has a rich and long history going back to the 17th Century Theatre Royal on the same site. An appropriate venue then for this evening’s baroque entertainment. The minimal set consisted of a monochrome grey torch stand, podium and water font set against a similarly grey solid backdrop, all bathed under a misty blue light. This created a very classical feel and allusions back to ancient greek drama. Unlike the original piece, which has only three characters, Tancredi, Clorinda and a narrator Testo who does most of the heavy vocal lifting, this production had seven. Three narrators (Oisín O Dálaigh, Sarah Kilcoyne & Rheanne Breen), and two each for the combatants (Ciaran Crangle & Ross Fitzpatrick as Tancredi & Naho Zoizumi & Letizia Delmastro as Clorinda). I wasn’t really sure how this would work out but it did share the heavy vocal duties of Testo and created an interesting dynamic with the combatants each having a second, rather like a boxer has someone in his corner for encouragement and support.

The costumes were traditional with Crusader tunics, armour & helmets and the fight scenes were very well choreographed. Their fervour echoing the varying tempo and intensity of the music as the exhaustive combat commences, breaks off and resumes. Both combatants had their seconds egging them on and we could clearly hear the adversaries panting with exhaustion after each engagement of flailing swords. Clorinda’s mortal wounding was particularly well acted by Letizia Delmastro as she clung to the victorious Ross Fitzpatrick’s statuesque Tancredi and slowly slid down to the ground. Tancredi stands tall looking down as her life ebb away. One of those times when an additional heartbreaking silence sits on top of an already silent audience.

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Programme cover & the sparse stage design with the musicians nestled along the front row of seating.

It may not have been ideal to have the musicians squeezed between the seating and the stage but the six piece ensemble played splendidly. The harpsichord, strings & flute creating a restrained baroque backdrop to the drama which was echoed by the heavily tiered wooden pew seating in this beautiful little theatre who’s history goes back to the baroque period.

I really enjoyed this production. Baroque opera is in the midst of a renaissance at the moment and it was wonderful to see this rather rarely performed work being staged in Ireland. It had an energy and realism in the combat which was a credit to the students and their tutors.  As usual surtitles are a bugbear of mine. They could not be seen from the wings where I was seated but in fairness that was because of the shape of the theatre space and I would imagine there isn’t much call for surtitles at this venue.

Monteverdi’s ‘Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’

By the time Claudio Monteverdi arrived in Venice in 1613 he had already established quite a reputation from his time as court composer to Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua. It was during his tenure at court that he had composed his first opera Orfeo for the Duke’s son and heir Francesco. A seminal work that tied together all of the various strands of music, recitative, drama, scenery and acting that would develop into opera as we know and love it. With this reputation under his belt he arrived in Venice not to work for another noble benefactor but to take up the position of musical director at St. Mark’s Basilica and eventually compose his later dramatic masterpieces Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea, for the paying public.

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Claudio Monteverdi & the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice where Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was first performed in 1624.

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was composed for the Venice Carnival of 1624 from a poetic libretto by Torquato Tasso. La Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) is a romantic tragedy set during the First Crusade and tells the story of Tancredi, an Italian knight and Clorinda, a Saracen maiden warrior who see each other on the battlefield and though they are in opposing armies they fall in love.

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‘Tancred and Clorinda’ by Theodor Hildebrandt & still from production at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 2012 with Cristina Zavalloni as Clorinda & Lorenzo Carola as Tancredi.

One evening Tancredi spots a Saracen warrior outside Jerusalem and challenges him to battle which the Saracen gladly accepts. Because of their armour neither knows who the other is and that they love each other. During their combat Tancredi eventually says to his adversary:

‘I pray you. If in war there is a place for prayers, to reveal to me your name and station. So that I may know, whether in defeat or victory, whom my death or my life honours.’

but Clorinda refuses to reveal her identity and their gruelling combat continues in tragic ignorance. Eventually Tancredi strikes a fatal blow and Clorinda falls to the ground. As she lies dying she turns and says to him:

‘Friend, you have won. I pardon you; pardon me as well. Not my body, which fears nothing, but my soul. Pray for it, and give baptism to me, which all my sins washes.’

Tancredi gathers water from a nearby stream in his helmet and when he removes Clorinda’s helmet to baptise her the full horror of what has happened hits him. There lying before him is the woman he loved and he has killed her. As the now baptised Clorinda dies, with her last breath she says:

‘Heaven opens, I go in peace’

Tancredi has defeated his opponent but has lost his love forever, Clorinda has been defeated but has gained redemption and heaven. Who really won the battle.

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‘Clorinda attacks Tancredi’ by Paolo Domenico Finoglia & ‘Tancredi Baptising Clorinda’ by Domenico Tintoretto.

Part of the ingenuity of Monteverdi was that he was constantly experimenting with different musical styles to depict various emotions and situations like love and war. These ideas can be seen vividly in Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The music is paced to the rhythm of the contest between the two knights, speeding up and becoming intense and pulsing as they lunge at each other swords flailing and slowing down and quietening as they run out of breath from their exertions and gather their energy only to return again to combat. Monteverdi left very clear instructions about how these mood and sound changes would work. The instruments recreate the sound of horses trotting, swords clashing, triumphal fanfairs and repeated circling passages as the two combatants circle each other.  It’s quite a hard piece to classify as it’s only about 25 minutes long, consists of only one scene and is written for only two actors (not including the narrator) who spend the whole time in combat with swords clashing and only sing occasional lines. The vast majority of the singing is done by a narrator who watches and informs us about the action, thoughts and feelings in the two characters heads as they fight to the death.

ASKO Ensemble of Amsterdam conducted by David Porcelijn & performed by Lorna Anderson, Maarten Koningsberger and Guy de Mey.

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is an important piece of operatic history not least because although Monteverdi is considered by many to be the father of opera, only three of his operas have survived. Many have been lost or only snippets still exist. There is a very traditional performance on youtube by ASKO Ensemble of Amsterdam which closely recreates what an original production of the work must have looked like.

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For a real baroque treat the DIT Conservatory of Music & Drama will present Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda along with Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as part of a baroque double bill at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin on 18th & 19th of January. Information about this exciting production is here.

Tara Erraught in Drogheda

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It was a full house at St. Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda to hear Tara Erraught, the mezzo-soprano from Dundalk who has made it all the way to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, perform for an enthusiastic home audience. She was accompanied by Dearbhla Collins on piano and Ulrich Pluta on clarinet in a programme that spanned lieder, opera and popular Christmas songs. St. Peter’s Church has great historical resonance in Drogheda and in addition to being a house of prayer it is now also host to regular concerts and performances that take advantage of it’s beautiful historic interior and wonderful acoustics.

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Franz Lachner, Johannes Brahms and Franz Schubert.

The concert opened with two songs by the lesser known German composer Franz Lachner, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song) a joyous and uplifting celebration of the emotive power of music and Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since I saw him) a rather urgent meditation on love and longing for a glimpsed stranger. Two songs by Johannes Brahms followed. Gestillte Sehnsucht (Stilled longing) which is a sensuous pastoral evocation of nature and waning passions while in a similar vein Geistliches Wiegenleid (Sacred lullaby) contemplates the peace and calmness of the nativity scene. Both songs were originally written for viola and piano and were a wedding gift to Brahms’ friends Joseph Joachim and Amalie on the occasion of their marriage.

This first part of the concert concluded with Franz Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock. Composed shortly before his death in 1828 it is a longer piece with three sections recounting a shepherd singing of his solitude on the lonely hills but as his mood darkens somewhat he contemplates the extent of his loneliness and separation.

I am consumed in misery, Happiness is far from me, 

Hope has on earth eluded me, I am so lonesome here.

But finally he consoles himself with thoughts that as the rolling of the seasons cannot be stopped so spring will soon come to his lonely empire and his spirits will lift again.

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Giants of the operatic canon. Mozart, Rossini & Handel.

After a welcome glass of wine at the intermission we moved from the concert hall to the opera house with a selection of arias. Opening with Mozart’s ‘Deh vieni non tardar(Ah come, do not delay) from the The Marriage of Figaro. The plot of this rather convoluted opera has thickened somewhat by Act IV when Suzanna sings this yearning love aria with it’s slow pulsing piano and magically weaving clarinet. Sung within the hiding Figaro’s earshot… but is for him, or is it really for the Count! Next we had Tanti affetti (So many emotions), a coloratura showpiece from Gioachino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. Set in Scotland this is one of Rossini’s less well-known operas but is the work that started a trend for Italian operatic adaptations of the stories of Sir Walter Scott. 

Next up was Handel with an aria from Rinaldo which has seen a huge resurgence in popularity due to the current vogue for counter tenors. Lascia ch’io pianga (Let me weep) is one of the most beautiful baroque arias. A slow and deeply moving cry for freedom sung by Almirena who has been imprisoned by Argante, the Saracen king of Jerusalem. A captivating highlight of the evening.

Let me weep over my cruel fate, and let me sigh for liberty.

May sorrow shatter these chains, for my torments, just out of pity.

The operatic section was rounded off by a return to Mozart and an aria from his final opera La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). Like Schubert’s piece earlier in the programme this opera was also written in the year of it’s composers death. Sung by Sesto, (a trouser role) to prove his love for princess Vitellia, Parto parto is a somewhat muscular yet very evocative aria with a beautiful rolling clarinet that echoes and responds to the vocal lines. With it’s wonderful coloratura crescendo finale it rounded off the operatic section on a high note.

Tara Erraught performs ‘Parto parto’ from La Clemenza di Tito.

From high drama and intense emotions we moved to the closing part of the concert and as befitting the season it was a selection of Christmas favourites which Tara encouraged us all to sing along to. Gustav Holst’s atmospheric setting of Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, Franz Xavier Gruber’s Silent Night, Adolphe Adam’s O Holy Night and finally after a well deserved standing ovation and prolonged applause from a delighted audience we finished with Michael Maybrick’s O Holy City.

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Live recording of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito with Tara Erraught in the roll of Annio.

This was always going to be an exciting concert for opera and choral music lovers. It was a real treat to have Tara back singing in her home county after all the success she has had globally. In addition to being an internationally acclaimed artist she continues to display her commitment to opera at home by being an artistic partner for the recently launched Irish National Opera and has been seen on the Dublin stage in recent seasons as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro and Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

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Posters for productions of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro in Dublin.

As a regular opera goer I’m used to hearing the music I love sung in foreign languages and in the absence of translations in the concert programme Tara gave us introductions to each piece with context and story which greatly added to the enjoyment of the evening. At an opera performance the narrative can usually be grasped by following the action on stage alone but in a concert setting this contextualisation was a great help to the enjoyment of the evening. Many concert performances of classical vocal pieces are accompanied by piano alone but the addition of Ulrich Pluta’s clarinet added a denser warmer melodic flow to the music as it’s softer timbre wove in and out of the more punctuated harmony of the piano.

This was certainly one of the highlights of the Drogheda Classical Music series from an opera and choral music fans perspective and in the new year we have a concert performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ to look forward to. The first of the great ‘reform operas’ that altered the musical and narrative trajectory of operatic history it will feature the mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty as Orfeo.

Drogheda Classical Music Series is Here

Tara Erraught’s site is Here

Dearbhla Collins site is Here

Info. about Ulrich Pluta is Here

The Tales of Hoffmann

Jacques Offenbach, the man who brought us the music to the Can-can didn’t live to see his greatest operatic masterpiece performed. He died on October 5th 1880 and The Tales of Hoffmann (Le Contes d’Hoffmann) didn’t get it’s premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris until February 1881. Offenbach was born in Cologne into a Jewish German family but moved to France where he converted to Catholicism and immersed himself in French musical culture and styles. He made his reputation in France as the composer of light-hearted comic operettas and was involved in several rather disastrous ventures into the world of theatrical production and financing.

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Jacques Offenbach and a poster from an 1884 production.

After the Franco Prussian war of 1870 his German heritage caused him to fall out of favour with French audiences and he briefly moved to the US where he had a degree of success. He eventually returned to France but wrote little of significance until the posthumous success of Hoffmann which sealed his reputation as one of France’s greatest composers for the stage.

Patricia Janečková performs ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ in concert.

Although ultimately a quite depressing opera that catalogues Hoffmann’s heartbreak and ridicule it is a glorious musical experience and as uplifting in its music as it is depressing in it’s story. Throughout all his escapades poor Hoffmann seems to be the only one who doesn’t realise he is being laughed at and taken advantage of but eventually he finds his way through his real or imagined love affairs and back to his muse. It’s an opera of incredibly sparkling music with wonderfully beautiful arias and uplifting choruses that create an amazing tension between the lightness of the music and the darkness of the libretto.

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Poster for the stunning 1951 film adaptation by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The opera is based on various stories by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Our hero is a romantic dreamer who likes to drink and recount stories of his previous amorous encounters. Real or imagined we are never quite sure.  The opera takes the form of three stories Hoffmann relates to his friends, tales of failed love affairs that have made him bitter and untrusting of love. Firstly Olympia a mechanical doll, than the sickly Antonia and finally the courtesan Giulietta. In all these affairs a nemesis intervenes to ruin happiness for Hoffmann until finally he gives up on love affairs completely and returns to finding contentment in his art.

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Fearghal Curtis as the inventor Spalanzani and his creation Olympia played by Claudia Boyle in the Irish National Opera production.

Hoffmann is by all accounts a difficult and complex opera to stage. It requires quite a large cast and a chorus of characters who observe and comment on Hoffmann’s folly as the opera progresses. His nemesis Lindorf always seems to have the crowd behind him as he continually foils Hoffmann’s affairs causing great laughter and mockery among the onlookers. There is also the tradition of a number of cast members playing multiple roles. In the Irish Nationa Opera production Claudia Boyle plays all four of Hoffmann’s lovers, Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta and Stella while John Molloy plays all four incarnations of his nemesis, Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto. Both Boyle and Molly rose easily to this challenge and the rather dramatic character changes were carried off with ease and professionalism.

An opera full of beautiful music, it contains a number of stunning show stopping tunes. Boyle took the incredibly difficult ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ in her stride and delivered a wonderful rendition of the famous barcarolle duet ‘Belle nuit, o nuit d’amour’ with Gemma Ní Bhriain as the muse Nicklausse. Jullian Hubbard was a solid Hoffmann and had a particularly impressive delivery of the charming duet ‘C’est un chanson d’amour’ with Boyle as the sickly Antonio.

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Julian Hubbard as Hoffmann entertains his companions with tales of his love affairs.

The reduced orchestra of seven players conducted from the piano by Andrew Synnott perfectly suited the small theatre space at The Solstice Arts Centre in Navan, a thoroughly modern if somewhat brutalist space with bare concrete walls. The set was minimalist and futuristic with large reflective panels and various coloured plastic props. The costumes were a mix of futurism and garish 70’s disco fashions, Olympia’s robotic outfit reminding me of Hazel O’Connor singing Eight Day. As with a lot of operas I attend the surtitles can be problematic and in this case those sitting near the front of the theatre had to look up quite high over the stage to follow the translation. (See the coming review of Bluebeard’s Castle on this issue)

This was all in all an enjoyable and very well crafted production. I have been to a number of operas directed by Tom Creed and they are consistently enjoyable and entertaining. The quality of both the singing and the performance was excellent. INO have an incredible troupe of performers and singers at their disposal and they all did the company proud.

Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

We are not the masters of our own condition. Some things are already written & cannot be changed. Forces greater than ourselves dictate them. Bluebeard’s Castle is Béla Bartók’s only opera and it’s lack of immediate success probably contributed to his decision to abandon the form in favour of instrumental compositions. Written in 1911 it remained unperformed until 1918 when it was premiered at the Budapest Royal Opera as part of a double bill with his ballet ‘The Wooden Prince’. Both had libretti by Béla Balázs.

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Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs.

Bartók who during his lifetime was better known as a concert pianist is now one of Hungary’s must celebrated composers and indeed one of the most important modern composers internationally. Born in current day Romania, Bartók was something of a child prodigy who by the age of 25 was piano professor at the Hungarian Royal Academy. Among his students was the great Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti. The political turmoil in central Europe in the 1930’s caused him to emigrate to America in 1940 where he stayed for the rest of his life. Part of the reason for his departure was the rising anti-Semitism in his homeland under the premiership of Miklós Horthy. Bartók had many Jewish friends, not least Balázs, whose name he refused to remove from the credits of Bluebeard’s Castle thus incurring the displeasure of the authorities.

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Nadja Michael & Mikhail Petrenko as Judith & Bluebeard from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production.

Based on a folktale by Charles Perrault the opera tells of Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith as she enters his castle for the first time. The castle is very dark and gloomy and on seeing seven doors Judith asks Bluebeard for the keys to open them so that she can let light and love into the dark and claustrophobic interior. As she gradually opens the doors the duke’s torture chamber, armoury, treasury & gardens are revealed, all smeared with blood until eventually the fifth door opens onto the dukes vast and beautiful lands which also have blood-red clouds drifting across them. Up to this point the castle is gradually getting brighter and Bluebeard tells Judith that she has seen enough, she has got what she wanted, the last two doors must remain locked.

‘you begged for… prayed for sunlight. See how the sun hath filled my house… Child, beware, beware my castle. Careful, it will shine no longer.’

But Judith insists in demanding the keys for the last two rooms. From here the mood changes and darkens as a sense of doom and forboding descends. The sixth room! a lake of tears, tears from the sadness that lived in the castle and permeates from it’s very walls. Bluebeard warns her not to ask for the key to the seventh room but she believes it contains the bodies of his murdered previous wives.

“I have guessed your secret, Bluebeard. I can guess what you are hiding… all your former wives have suffered, suffered murder, brutal, bloody. Ah, those rumours, truthful rumours.”

The seventh room does indeed reveals Bluebeard’s previous wives. One is found in the morning, one at midday, another in the evening. All are alive and in a zombie-like state. Judith, to her horror, is added to their number in a dark mantle and a rich crown: his wife of the nighttime. She enters the seventh room, the door closes behind her and the castle is returned once again to darkness.

Bluebeard’s Castle was written a number of years after Bartók along with his friend and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály had developed an interest in Hungarian folk music in 1905. Together they travelled around the countryside recording and logging the various musical styles among small rural communities. These musical patterns made their way into this opera. Although written in 1911 the work is not particularly dissonant or ‘modernist’ in sound. Bartók in his early years was very heavily influenced by the Germanic music of Wagner and Strauss but by the time he was writing Bluebeard’s Castle his influences were more folk and archaic. Yes, there are passages that are driven by minor chords but they tend to be used to reflect the darkness and claustrophobia of the castle rather than an attempt to reflect then current musical fashions. The opening of the ‘pleasant’ doors like the treasury, the secret garden and the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom are accompanied by beautiful tonal passages that reflect the beauty being revealed. Up to the opening of the fifth door the castle gets continuously brighter. From then on a darkening creeps over it as the almost unstoppable and tragic conclusion gradually reveals itself.

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Two illustrations of Bluebeard, on the left by Gustave Doré & on the right by Irish artist Harry Clarke.

This is an opera I have grown to love. It takes a bit of listening to but as they say in musical circles ‘it’s a grower’. It brings to mind Benjamin Britten’s ‘Owen Wingrave’ in that it has the same dark supernatural theme in the background as the events between the characters are played out. It’s also quite a demanding opera for the performers as there are only two of them (not including the three non-singing wives) and aside from  it’s being a very emotionally intense work, for Judith anyway, they are continuously on stage and performing. There is no break from the gaze or the ears of the audience. Just as well it’s not more than an hour’s duration! The length of the piece and its minimal cast makes it a great choice for smaller opera companies even though Bartók originally scored it for an enormous orchestra which included an organ accompanying  the opening of the fifth door and one of the great stand alone high C’s of opera.

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There are a number of recordings which are sung in the original Hungarian which can sound a bit odd when one is used to hearing operas sung in Italian or German. The recording I have is an English language version from 2016 on the Chandos label featuring bass John Tomlinson and mezzo soprano Sally Burgess. If one wants to see the full opera with English subtitles there is a good ‘movie’ style version on YouTube with Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence from 1988. Irish National opera are also giving three performances of Bluebeard’s Castle this autumn in conjunction with the Dublin Theatre Festival. This will feature Joshua Bloom and Paula Murrihy. I’ll certainly be at one of those.

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Details about Opera Ireland’s production are here

The Robert Lloyd & Elizabeth Lawrence ‘movie’ version is here