Puccini at Drogheda Arts Centre

(for background information and synopsis to these two operas see this previous article Il Tabarro & Suor Angelica on operakey.com)

Drogheda Arts Centre is quite a small theatre seating 170. It’s a wonderful modern performance space with great sound and acoustics and very comfortable seating (and a nice Café/Bar for a glass of wine at the interval). I have previously been to a production by Opera Theatre Company here and the venue is ideally suited to smaller touring productions. There was unfortunately an audience of only about 50 at this performance, a number of whom seem to have been involved with the company which left a very small attendance indeed. I always find small attendances at operatic events like this quite disappointing as anyone who knows about opera is aware of the effort that goes into preparing a public performance like this and to see so many empty seats has to be quite deflating for all concerned.

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The wonderful theatre at Drogheda Arts Centre

Dublin Opera Studio seems to be a relatively new development and the cast comprised of Irish and international singers, some still studying and some at the start of their singing careers. The operas were sung in their original language, namely Italian, which is obviously beneficial to a mixed nationality cast but it brings with it the problem of translation though the surtitles were quite good (the English translation was centre back stage and above the performers). Unfortunately even in the darkened theatre the translation was quite weakly lit and occasionally difficult to read which is problematic when an opera is dialogue heavy or plots are complex.

(An additional point I’d make about titling in general is that the type of stationary projected titles where the audience read them as if reading a passage from a book is not ideal, especially where the opera has a lot of dialogue. A much better system I have found is the rolling ‘ticker-tape’ titles like the rolling news items one sees running across the screen of TV news channels. The advantage is that the titles do the work and the viewer only has to watch one spot. I saw this set up in both Cork Opera House and the Everyman Theatre also in Cork and found it excellent. Additionally where performances are not sung in English there really should be a plot summary available for the audience but unfortunately there was none that I could see.)

As discussed in a previous post Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are the first two instalments of Puccini’s Il Trittico (The Triptych), the third of which is the more widely performed Gianni Schicchi and although Puccini intended for all three to be performed together they are regularly performed separately.

The set for Il Tabarro could have been a bit more evocative of the setting of the opera, namely a canal key side and a barge on the River Seine and I don’t really think the feel of a dockside was created. The set for Suor Angelica was quite minimalist indeed and consisted almost exclusively of a large crucifix but this worked very well as it echoed the sparse and empty emotional space in which the nuns live, their monochrome religious habits also echoing the lack of colour in their routines. The music on the evening was provided by a very competent five piece ensemble of cello, flute, french horn and harp conducted from the piano by Philip Modinos.

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Ioannis Nakos as Michele and Marta de Andrés as Giorgetta in ‘Il Tabarro’

Il Tabarro was sung very well by all cast members with baritone Gheorghe Palcu being particularly strong as Talpa and Clare McEvoy as his rather eccentric wife Frugola. John Rownan was a convincing Luigi showing passion for his role as he falls for Giorgetta’s charms and indeed Marta de Andrés performed solidly as Giorgetta, the young woman caught in a loveless marriage with Michele. Ioannis Nakos was quite restrained as Michele and he struggled a bit to adequately express the rage and jealousy his character is consumed by when he finds out this wife is being unfaithful, a rage which drives him to commit murder after all!

The only drawback with Il Tabarro was that generally the acting tended to be a bit stiff and tight and some of the more emotionally charged scenes lacked passion and spirit. This is understandable for younger operatic performers. Singing is a technical skill which can be improved and even perfected with regular practice and can be worked on more or less anytime. Operatic acting, which is much more demanding that theatrical acting, is a more difficult craft to master and the ability to convincingly get into character is a skill that tends to come with experience.

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Suor Angelica is a very different kind of opera to Il Tabarro. It is more emotionally complex and reaches way deeper than the jealousy that fuels Il Tabarro. It delves into the realms of regret, despair, mental breakdown and eventual suicide, all acted out in the very solemn and restrained environment of a convent. Except for Sr. Angelica’s aunt played by Patricia v. Andersen all of the cast were in full traditional nuns habits and that visual cue in itself creates a strong cultural resonance and a specific set of emotional triggers in the audience’s mind. It certainly served to heighten the acuteness of the tragedy that was to follow.

The standout performance of Suor Angelica and indeed of the evening was Anna Gomá whos portrayal of Sr. Angelica was wonderful. She was full of the drama and tragedy of her character, is a natural actor and has a voice to match. It has to be said though that in many ways Suor Angelica is an opera that lends itself to a strong leading performance with the other characters often the observers of and commenters on the events that eventually lead to Sr. Angelica’s breakdown and death. Ms. Gomá was to say the least gripping in her performance.

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Anna Gomá as Sr. Angelica in ‘Suor Angelica’

The overall feel of the evening was one of young artists learning their craft and that in itself is wonderful to see and deserves every encouragement. There is so much operatic talent in Ireland at the moment and every opportunity to put it before the public to remind us should be grasped. I believe these productions are being taken to Greece for an opera festival later this year. My best wished to all involved, well done.

http://www.dublinoperastudio.com/

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In Parenthesis

A lot of literature has sprung from the experiences of the Great War and one of the greatest examples is the epic poem ‘In Parenthesis’ by the Welsh artist and poet David Jones. Jones had served in the trenches throughout the war with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was present at the assault on Mametz Wood at the opening of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

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David Jones. Author of In Parenthesis

His experiences in the trenches and particularly the assault on Mametz where the Welsh Division lost almost 4000 men was the inspiration for In Parenthesis which Jones started writing in 1928 and it was eventually completed and published in 1937. In 2015 Welsh National Opera commissioned English composer Iain Bell to compose an opera based on Jones’ poem to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Bell, who’s quite new to the world of opera, is a very talented composer who specialises in choral works and In Parenthesis is his third opera. (The role of Kitty in his first opera ‘A Harlots Progress’ was created by Irish Mezzo Soprano Tara Erraught).

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Composer Iain Bell.

In parenthesis consists of two acts both about an hour-long with no overture so we are straight into the action where the lead character Private John Ball and his platoon are preparing for their march to Southampton to board the ship that will take them to France. Starting in the first act, as the men march to the coast, and continuing throughout the opera there are some wonderful choruses (A strong element of male choral singing would be expected in an opera about the Welsh). These choruses cement the idea of the common experiences of a group of soldiers but what separates Ball from the rest of his comrades is that he seems to have premonitions of the horrors to come, horrors that more slowly dawn on the rest of the men. Ball even sees the boarding of the ship in Southampton as ‘A slippery gangway to hell’ and these visions haunt him throughout the opera.

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Sergeant Snell (Mark le Brocq) with the WNO Platoon Chorus

Also from the opening scene we have a female chorus who’s vocalising is like sirens calling the soldiers to their deaths like the sirens of ancient greek mythology. Their singing is haunting and beautiful but has an underlying unsettling darkness to it and the allusion works very well as the audience knows the faith that awaits the soldiers.

The soldiers are quite pleasantly surprised when they arrive in France and sing of the beauty of the countryside ‘O Flower, who’s fragrance tender’ but the arrival of the battle hardened ‘Marne Sargent’ puts an end to their lightheartedness as he fills them in on what to expect when they go over the top. This harrowing advice is soon followed by an artillery bombardment that dispels any lingering doubts they had about the nightmare they were heading into.

In Parenthesis_ WNO,COMPOSER; Iain Bell, Private John Ball; Andrew Bidlack, Bard of Brittannia_HQ Officer; Peter Coleman_Wright, Bard of Germania_Alice the Barmaid_The Queen of the Woods; Alexandra Deshorties, Lieutenant Jenkins; George Humphreys, Lance Corporal Lewis; Marcus Farnsworth, Sergeant Snell; Mark Le Brocq, Dai Greatcoat; Donald Maxwell, The Marne Sergeant ;Graham Clark,

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball and Marcus Farnsworth as Lieutenant Jenkins. Picture: Bill Cooper

Act Two is set six months after they arrive in France and they are preparing for the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Great tension and fear is building up among the soldiers as they contemplate their fate yet they try to distract themselves with drinking, singing and reading. They console themselves by saying the real war is much further south only to find out that their new orders are to ‘March South!’ A grim reality dawns on one and all.

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Peter Coleman-Wright as Bard of Brittannia and Alexandra Deshorties as Bard of Germania stand over the trench.

While on night watch Ball can hear the sound of the rats gnawing on the bones of the dead bodies on no man’s land Scrut, scrut, scrut’ and at dawn the whistles blow and they are ordered over the top to attack the enemy positions in the woods. As they enter the wood some of the platoon are shot and even the trees themselves come alive and start to attack the soldiers killing them. Death doesn’t come from the enemy machine-guns and shells alone but from the very landscape itself. This is a wonderful interpretation of the fear and paranoia that has gripped the soldiers as the landscape itself wishes them dead.

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Alexandra Deshorties as The Queen of the Woods torments the soldiers.

The whole opera is quite tragic and highly dramatic and is certainly gripping viewing. Despite the rather depressing subject matter there are numerous lighter moments and the singing is wonderful. There is a strong religious undercurrent running through the whole opera which is understandable as Jones spent many years living in Christian arts communities and after converting to Catholicism he became fascinated by its mysteries and ceremonies. In an opera season which has had a number of big profile controversies about graphic and gorey scenes it is refreshing to see the carnage of the Somme dealt with in a more creative way with less appeal to simple shock value.

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The Welsh at Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams (1918).

https://www.wno.org.uk/event/parenthesis

http://www.iainbellmusic.com/

Il Tabarro & Suor Angelica

Giacomo Puccini was very impressed by the success of shorter format operas like Ruggero Leoncavello’s ‘Pagliacci’ and especially Pietro Mascagni’s ‘Cavaleria Rusticana’ and their ability to tell an emotionally charged story without the necessary complexity of plot and attention holding devices needed for a longer three or four act production. Rather in the way a short story can have all the elements of a full novel but presented in a stripped down and more immediate fashion, the one act opera could get to the emotional core of the story quickly and directly.

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Giacomo Puccini.

For a composer who had become world famous for his soaring romantic tragedies like ‘La Bohème’, ‘Tosca’ & ‘Madama Butterfly’ this would certainly be a change of ‘format’ at least but one which Puccini only half heartedly embraced in so much as his intrigue with this shorter format resulted in three distinct operas which he intended to be performed together resulting in a finished work that was considerably longer than any of his other operas, and the links between the three operas were tangential at best. ‘Il Trittico’ (The Triptych) comprises the operas ‘Il Tabarro’, ‘Suor Angelica’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’. Puccini did eventually relent somewhat and agreed to let only two of the three be performed together if necessary and today they are regularly performed as the originally intended three, as two together or indeed as one on a program with a shorter work by a different composer. Sour Angelica for example is occasionally performed with the one act opera ‘La Voix Humane’ by Francis Poulenc because of their similar emotional scenarios and tragic endings. (A riveting production of La Voix Humane was toured by Opera Theatre Company last year with a gripping performance by Soprano Kim Sheehan).

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Italian baritone Lucio Gallo as Michele in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Il Tabarro’ directed by Richard Jones.

Briefly looking at the first two of the Triptych, Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is set on a barge in Paris in 1910 and is a tale of infidelity and revenge. Giorgetta, the young wife of the barge owner Michele, is in love with Luigi who works for her husband. They grew up together and dream of getting away from the endless struggle, misery and backbreaking work of life on the water. The lovers hatch a plan to run away together and Giorgetta tells Luigi she will signal him from the barge with a candle when he is to come for her. Michele has had his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity for quite a while and after confronting Giorgetta he goes up on deck and lights his cigar. The watching Luigi sees the light and believes it to be the signal from his lover so he goes on board only to be confronted and killed by Michele who now sees what the plan was. Michele covers the body with his cloak (the cloak he used to cover his wife and their now dead child with when they were sleeping on board). When Giorgetta comes on deck he reveals the dead body of Luigi and mocking her throws his heartbroken wife onto the corpse of her lover.

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Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Suor Angelica’ directed by Richard Jones.

Could things get more dramatic and tragic? well with Puccini, yes! Sour Angelica (Sister Angelica) tells the story of a young woman who has been sent to a convent because she has had a child out of wedlock, a child she has only held and kissed once before he was taken away from her. Sister Angelica’s aunt, a rich noblewoman arrives at the convent to tell her that her younger sister is to be married and Angelica must sign over her inheritance to her since Angelica will have no need of it as she must spend the rest of her life in a convent. While signing the papers Angelica asks how her child is to which her aunt coldly answers that the child died two years ago. Angelica is seized by grief and remorse and seeing no reason to live drinks a poison so as to join her dead child only to realise that suicide is a sin and she will be parted from her child for eternity. As she dies she begs the Virgin Mary to forgive her sin. An apparition of a heavenly woman and a child appears in the convent door and the woman coaxes the child towards the dying Angelica who reaches out to him. Angelica realises she is forgiven and she will indeed be reunited with her son in death.

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Italian Soprano Renata Tebaldi who recorded all three of ‘Il Trittico’ in 1962.

I have recordings of both these operas from 1962 featuring the sublime Renata Tebaldi in both lead female roles. By this time her voice was beginning to fade slightly and she avoids some of the high C’s which she was straining to reach. Ideally the roles of Giorgetta and Angelica, which place different demands on the voice should be sung by different singers. Georgian is a more powerful, strident and dramatic role where as Angelica requires the lighter touch of a more lyrical soprano. That said, Renata Tebaldi’s voice even in the early afterglow of its brilliance is a pleasure to listen to.

The emotional space which both female characters occupy is also vastly different. Although Il Tabarro ends with tragedy and murder, throughout the opera Giorgetta is happy and joyous for despite the claustrophobia of living on a barge with a husband she no longer loves she knows she will soon be escaping to a better life with Luigi. The emotional space for Sister Angelica is much darker, brooding and intense and is a different and more challenging role for a singer. Hers is a gradual descent into a despair which is only alleviated by the final ‘redemption’ of suicide.

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Both these operas of tragedy, death, loss and redemption were premiered in 1918 as the world emerged from the cataclysm of the Great War. A war which Puccini did not personally participate in and had no great convictions about but one in which Italy lost hundreds of thousands of her young men in the icy ravines of the Dolomites and the killing fields of Caporetto.

The music in both operas owes a lot to Claude Debussy and the French Impressionist. Puccini by this stage in his career had well mastered the art of operatic story telling and creating beautiful and memorable melodies but in these short operas Puccini wanted to be more musically adventurous. Debussy’s influence can be seen in the use of block chords and the hypnotic and calming effect of the repetition of these chords up and down the scale. This is most notable in Suor Angelica where these repeated hypnotic figures create a contemplative almost religious effect.

Also these operas don’t have the roll call of showstopping arias Puccini helped built his career on but are more about being musically adventurous and highly dramatic using a lot of conversational vocal passages that fall between recitative and aria to push the action forward. That said there are a number of stunning arias like ‘Hai ben ragione’ sung by Luigi in Il Tabarro where he describes the misery of life working on the barges and ‘Senza Mamma’ from Sour Angelica as Angelica laments for her dead child.

Dublin Opera Studio will be performing their production of these two operas at The Clasac Theatre, Clontarf on Friday 22nd July and Drogheda Arts Centre on Saturday 23rd July before taking the production to Greece in September.

http://clasac.ie/

http://www.droichead.com/