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

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