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.

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Some Mozart with The Royal Irish Academy of Music students

On hearing The Royal Irish Academy of Music were presenting La Finta Giardiniera (The Secret Gardener) as their student production this year I had no intention of turning down an opportunity to see Mozart performed in Dublin. The RIAM has been presenting student operas for over ten years now and they have developed into a terrific performance platform for emerging singers and musicians. Having seen their very impressive production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen last year I had an inkling this could be another treat. A lesser known work by Mozart and written when he was only eighteen years old La Finta Giardiniera displays astonishing maturity and complexity in both music and theme but like many operas, it suffers from a somewhat convoluted libretto.

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Vladimir Sima as Il Podestà (The Mayor) keeps the feuding Nardo and Serpetta apart played by Dylan Rooney and Ecaterina Tulgara. Photo by Colm Hogan

The set which was designed in collaboration with students from IADT Dun Laoghaire was quite sparse for the most part consisting of a garden space surrounded by a low hedge with various chairs and tables moved around as needed. This arrangement along with the rather subtle costumes worked well and tied in with the garden theme but also aided the regularly large number of performers on stage involved in a lot of activity and dancing in various scenes. Those who were not on stage for particular scenes sat on benches either side of the stage visible to the audience which I found an intriguing dramatic touch blurring the theatrical space as you saw the cast step into and out of character. Being quite a small theatre the placing of the RIAM Opera Orchestra which was conducted by Andrew Synnott from the harpsichord behind the stage brought the action closer to the audience and created a more theatrical experience.

What worked less well were the projections above the stage of graffiti-styled love hearts and slogans. The intention was to provide cues to the evolving drama but I found them distracting and their rather urban and neon quality jarred with the more bucolic escapades unfolding below. Above them again were the surtitles which required continual looking up quite far from the stage to follow the story although it was a credit to the acting skills of the cast that the plot wasn’t too difficult to decipher.

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Arminda played by Corina Ignat reminds Count Belfiore played by James McCreanor what their future marital bliss will be like. Photo by Colm Hogan

Essentially the tale of a succession of mismatched passions and disguised encounters this opera is brim full of delightful arias and uplifting ensembles which made it an ideal choice for a student production. The spotlight was quite democratic as the distribution of arias allowed each of the seven leading cast member numerous opportunities to shine. These arias, some comic and jovial others reflective and sorrowful demanded significant mood changes which the cast handled with confidence and professionalism. They were not found wanting in their acting skills either in what was quite an energetic production which required buffa vignettes to quickly change to more sombre and reflective musings. All of this colour was excellently choreographed, especially in Act III as a rather chaotic banquet scene unfolded.

In what promises to be a very exciting year for Irish opera this was an early taster of the depth of operatic talent we have in Ireland to encourage and celebrate.

Pics, cast and other details about this production are here

The Royal Irish Academy of Music is here

IADT Dun Laoghaire Design for Stage & Screen Course is here

Ardee Baroque Festival

The term Baroque can be new to many music lovers. When I told a friend I was going to this festival she quizzically asked ‘the Ardee rock festival’? An understandable mistake. As the predominant musical style of the 17th century Baroque music can have a flamboyant and often decorative style which reflects the aesthetics of the time. Think Handel’s Messiah or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and you’re on the canvas.

Now in it’s 14th year the Ardee Baroque Festival has garnered quite a local following in the North East becoming what the Irish Times called ‘a music festival that could hold it’s head up anywhere’. Although having a programme of events over a full weekend which included concerts, poetry, youth engagement & education the headline performance was at the historic St. Mary’s Abbey. We gathered in this beautifully maintained church to welcome the festival’s anchor ensemble and perennial favourites the Irish Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Claire Duff who were joined by soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace for a concert of instrumental and vocal pieces heavily weighted towards Handel although Corelli and Telemann did make guest appearances.

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The Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Opening appropriately enough with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, the slow introduction of the first movement quickly gave way to a full baroque soundscape of strings, harpsichord and the vigorous bass which underpins this seasonal masterpiece. The mood well and truly set, soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace then introduced us to the operatic genius of Handel with the slowly rhythmic and aching Ah, Mio Cor from Alcina and Son Contenta Di Morire, an aria which Sinéad is familiar with following her tour playing Zenubia in Opera Northern Ireland’s recent production of Radamisto. A pacey and wonderfully decorative piece of vocal acrobatics which she reprised with aplomb and which displayed the development of Sinéad’s voice to incorporate deeper mezzo roles.

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Soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace.

The evening continued with a Telemann Concerto which had the added treat of Miriam Kaczor, a graduate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music taking the lead on baroque flute. Not an instrument you immediately associate with the Baroque style, the delicacy of the flute was beautifully supported by the subtle playing of the string ensemble.

After a brief intermission it was Handle all the way with a selection from the ever popular Messiah. If God Be For Us lulled us with it’s lush harmonies before Sinéad gifted us another coloratura spectacular with Rejoice Greatly lifting our spirits on a very cold and damp evening. After another Concerto Grosso we returned again to the operatic stage for the urgent and rather intense Ma Quando Tourerai also from Alcina before finally being treated to Lascia Ch’io Pianga from Rinaldo, a beautiful and emotionally intense aria which enjoys huge popularity.

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The wonderfully atmospheric St. Mary’s Abbey, Ardee.

 

There is currently a lot of renewed interest in Baroque and indeed early music in general. You only need look at the success of smaller festivals like Ardee Baroque Festival and East Cork Early Music Festival right up to the large scale revivals of early operas. Of course there really is no substitute for the live experience of accomplished performers, often playing period instruments, to bring the enduring beauty of this music to life.

http://ardeebaroque.com/

http://www.irishbaroqueorchestra.com/

http://sineadcampbellwallace.com/

Acis & Galatea with Opera Theatre Company

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

German by birth and composer of no fewer than 46 operas and 30 oratorios (essentially an opera performed as a concert), George Frideric Handel traveled to Italy in 1706 where he was greatly influenced by Italian opera and singing styles before he returning to Germany in 1710. When his patron prince George, Elector of Hanover, was crowned King George I of Great Britain, Handel followed him to London and settled there in 1712. He had huge success with his Italian operas in London and went on to write his famous oratorios like the Messiah for which he is possibly best known today along with other famous works like the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Acis & Galatea was first performed in 1718 for the Earl of Carnarvon at his country estate at Cannons in Middlesex. The piece was written in the style of a ‘masque’ or a little opera. Originally an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aces & Galatea was written in English (as was much of Handel’s later work) and was originally performed by the Earl himself with his family and friends as a country house entertainment.

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Statue of Acis & Galatea in Acireale, Sicily where the ancient river Acis flowed from Mt. Etna.

In  the original story Acis & Galatea are lovers but the giant Polyphemus is also in love with Galatea and will not give her up. In a fit of rage at seeing Acis & Galatea so happy together he kills Acis with a giant rock. The gods, nature and Galatea mourn the death of Acis and she uses her supernatural powers to transform Acis into a river. (the now subterranean river Acis in eastern Sicily)

I attended the performance in An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk (who were very obliging and accommodating when they heard I was reviewing, thanks guys!). The smaller scale in both size and volume of the Irish Baroque Orchestra perfectly suited this smaller venue. After a fairly brisk Sinfonia by the orchestra playing period instruments and conducted by Peter Whelan from the harpsichord we were straight into the opening chorus of ‘Oh, the pleasure of the plains’, sung by Fearghal Curtis, Cormac Lawlor, Sinead O’Kelly & Peter O’Reilly. A joyously rousing and very well sung start to proceedings accompanied by a change into country & western costumes and a touch of  line dancing (I was worried about this initially!). A sort of opening showstopper if you will! The mood then darkens somewhat as Galatea played by Susanna Fairbairn enters and believes flowers left in the bar for her are from Acis but on realising they are in fact from Polyphemus, played by baritone Edward Grint, she throws them in the bin. She sings of her sadness at being parted from her beloved Acis and longs for his return which elicits sniggers and mocking looks from the chorus ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire’.

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Cormac Lawlor, Peter O’Reilly, Andrew Gavin & Ferghal Curtis show their dancing skills.

When Acis played by Eamonn Mulhall arrives excitedly looking for Galatea he is delayed outside the bar and prevented from entering by Damon played by Andrew Gavin. Mulhall’s bright and clear tenor voice is introduced as he enthusiastically sings ‘Where shall I seek the charming fair’ and Andrew Gavin’s ‘Stay, shepherd stay’ is delivered with skill and style. Knowing the nature of the bullying and drunken Polyphemus they try to waylay and distract Acis as they fear his return may end in tears.

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Eamonn Mulhall as Acis and Susanna Fairbairn as Galatea are reunited.

The lovers are eventually reunited as their friends stare through the bar windows with both joy and worry. Acis sings of his love for Galatea ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ while Galatea tells of the pain of being parted from him ‘Oh, didst thou know the pain’. The lovers are reunited, kisses and hugs are exchanged, the bubbly is opened to celebrate and joy abounds in the little bar. Act one ends with all singing and dancing merrily to the wonderfully uplifting ‘Happy we’.  Maybe things won’t end so badly after all… but as the merrymaking continues in the bar Polyphemus waits outside listening and seething.

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Andrew Gavin as Damon tries to calm down and console Edward Grint as Polyphemus.

Act two opens with the wonderful ensemble singing of ‘Wretched lovers’ by the chorus. What a contrast to the joyous mood of the opening of Act one as all see the clouds gathering and their worst fears are confirmed as Polyphemus enters, angry and drunk ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’. Edward Grint plays a very convincing drunk as he delivers the somewhat convoluted ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ to a very un-amused Galatea. Spotting his flowers thrown in the bin he breaks into a rage and proceeds to upend chairs and tables.

Damon talks Polyphemus down and softens his rage with ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ again beautiful sung by Andrew Gavin. Acis’ anger rises at the arrival into the bar of the drunken Polyphemus and in ‘Love sounds the alarm’ Mulhall wonderfully evokes his fear of confronting the stronger and more aggressive Polyphemus. Damon again tries to continue his thankless task of trying to defusing the situation and keep Acis and Polyphemus apart. Polyphemus returns to see Acis & Galatea happily together and in an explosion of rage he hits Acis with a brick on the head.  As the bloodied Acis falls and dies he sings ‘Help Galatea Help, ye parent gods’ as all watch on stunned. Love and happiness are destroyed as the dead Acis is carried off stage on a stretcher. (Yes, some operas do have sad endings!)

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The tragic triangle of Polyphemus (Edward Grint), Galatea (Susanna Fairbairn) & Acis (Eamonn Mulhall).

I have to confess I was a bit concerned about what I was hearing about rural Irish pubs and line dancing during this build up to this production but though in my opinion Opera Theatre Company have possibly over-pushed the envelope with some of their interpretations (Rigoletto in the boxing ring & Carmen with the Gardaí) I tend to be impressed with the balance they strike when trying to adapt and create an accessibility for opera while also respecting the essence and intention of the works.

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Director Tom Creed and Irish Baroque Orchestra conductor Peter Whelan.

Performing early opera in contemporary settings can sometimes create a jarring disconnect between the music and what can be rather archaic words and phrasing set against a contemporary scene but I feel this production hit the right balance as you were immediately drawn into the drama of the story and the setting became almost incidental and literally a believable backdrop against which the primacy of the story takes place. Aside from the quality of the singing and playing, therein lies the success of this production for me, original and creative with plenty of local colour yet respectful of the original work. The singing, both chorus and solo, was strong and impressive and the acting was natural and unforced. Director Tom Creed has done a wonderful job of localising this work and yet retaining the universality of this story of love, jealousy and murder.

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Acis & Galatea by Nicolas Poussin in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Opera Theatre Company‘s production of Acis and Galatea in streaming online here at theoperaplatform.eu until October 31st 2017.

Irish Baroque Orchestra are here

Info about Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Acis and Galatea’ at the National Gallery of Ireland is here

 

Sacred Music at an Historic Site

The English Civil War was already over by the time Parliamentarian troops arrived at the walls of Drogheda on the 3rd of September 1649. A bitter and protracted conflict which only ended with the fall of an axe on the divinely anointed neck of King Charles I in January of that year. Despite the ending of the war in England many loose ends were left untied and the most problematic of these was Ireland. This in some way possibly explains what happened when Oliver Cromwell’s 48 pounders finally breached the town walls on the 11th of September. The massacre that followed needs no retelling here but in one documented incident Royalist defenders barricaded themselves in a Church which Cromwell’s troops set alight burning it to the ground and all those inside.

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St. Peter’s CoI Church, Drogheda.

We sit this evening in St. Peters Church of Ireland on the very site where these tragic events unfolded 367 years ago, anticipating a wonderful evening of choral music as part of this seasons Drogheda International Classical Music Series. The performance was preceded by an interview with this evenings conductor James Wood. Wood has so far had a long and varied career as a musician, composer and conductor which for many years centred around the New London Chamber Choir which he set up in 1981 and conducted for 26 years before moving to Germany.

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Chamber Choir Ireland.

The theme running through this evenings programme was one of veneration and prayer to the Virgin Mary with pieces from the 15th Century right up to the present day. I am obviously a big fan of choral music and one reason I was so interested in attending this concert was to hear a chamber choir singing Renaissance hymns and motets accompanied by saxophone, an instrument that was only invented in 1840. I had heard the matching of saxophone with Michael Nyman’s reworking of various baroque motifs and liked the effect so was very keen to hear this evenings concert with Chamber Choir Ireland and the Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

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Chatham Saxophone Quartet.

The opening piece by the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (1410/25 – 1497) set the tone for the evening and I think it is fair to say the whole audience was immediately transported away from 21st century Drogheda to candle lit 15th Century churches and cloisters in the most glorious and enchanting way. A magnificently atmospheric piece, Intemerata Dei Mater (Unblemished Mother of God) is a hymn to Our Lady and like a number of pieces this evening it was sung in Latin which only added to the other wordiness and spirituality to this magical music that has travelled down through the centuries to us. This piece also gave us a first taste of how well saxophone works as an accompaniment to the choir. Although most people’s experience of saxophone is through jazz where the instrument can be quite strident and angular, this evening it was very subtle, didn’t overpower the vocals at all and lent a wonderful instrumental backdrop for the polyphony of voices to work into and around. Beautiful rolling bass harmony lines underpinned an uplifting and occasionally soaring soprano melody in this glorious piece.

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Arvo Pärt & Benjamin Britten – two giants of modern sacred choral music.

The next two composers on the programme were more contemporary. Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) and Arvo Pärt (1935 – ). The Hymn to the Virgin by Benjamin Britten, composed when he was only 16, is a setting of a 13th Century poem for voice only. A favourite of English church choirs it is rather higher in register than the previous piece with fewer grounding deeper notes. The tenors and sopranos soared along wonderfully and indeed, next to the previous piece, this work written in 1930 pointed up the timeless beauty of this sacred music.

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The New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City with a detail of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Virgincita is a prayer to the Virgin Mary written by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in 2012 after a visit to Mexico which was inspired by the story of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Saint Juan Diego in 1531. The miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which Pärt saw is supposedly painted on Saint Juan Diego’s cloak and is now on display in the New Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City (The most visited Catholic shrine in the world). Pärt who converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 1970’s is renowned for his sacred and spiritual music which is heavily influenced by the choral traditions of Christianity. We stayed with Pärt for the next instrumental piece, the otherworldly and almost ‘trippy’ Fratres (Brothers) which highlighted the ensemble playing of the Chatham Saxophone Quartet to great effect.

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Johannes Ockeghem, Carlo Gesualdo & Jacob Obrecht.

Next we moved back again in time to a piece by Carlo Gesualdo (1566 – 1613), the rather colourful and somewhat disturbing Italian Renaissance composer who murdered his wife and her lover and lead a rather bizarre and often macabre and troubled life. From 2008 to 2011 James Wood undertook to complete the missing voice parts of Gesualdo’s Second Book of Sacred Music and the Ave Sanctissima Maria (Most Holy Mary) is from this work. This is again a magnificently uplifting piece of Renaissance polyphony sung in Latin with a number of soaring heavenly crescendos that succeeded in rousing one dozing attendee near me…

We then stayed with Renaissance music for the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) of Jacob Obrecht (1457 – 1505), a Flemish composer of sacred music who was famous for his Mass settings. Obrecht’s music has great colour and beauty which caught the ear of the Papacy resulting in his music being performed in the Sistine Chapel. We then had another instrumental piece, Padouana, a slow dance from the German composer Johann Schein’s (1586 – 1630) Banchetto Musicale (Musical Banquet) which again showed the quartets mastery of highly atmospheric almost yearning ensemble playing.

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Johann Schein.

Moving to the 19th century and a setting of the Ave Maria by Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896). Best known for his romantic symphonies Bruckner was also a prolific composer of sacred music and like Britten’s hymn the higher register voices dominate to create an airy, elevated and almost unworldly feel to this piece which concludes with the classic Amen ending so prevalent in later sacred music. This beautiful setting composed in 1861 was Bruckner’s first major composition after finishing his musical studies in Vienna.

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Anton Bruckner & Giya Kancheli.

The final piece was quite a spectacular from contemporary Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935 – ). Written in 2005 Amao Omi (Senseless War) is a strangely haunting and melancholic work which was written for choir and saxophone. The composer claims he chose the disjointed words of the text for their sound rather than their meaning. It was certainly a very spiritual and seductive piece and was a suitably climactic conclusion to the programme.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable, inspiring and even uplifting evening charged with that very organic beauty that can only be achieved by the life-giving breath of humanity playing on vocal cords and vibrating reeds. In a busy world where so many people are stressed, worried and anxious, this music is not only an inspiring aesthetic experience but a spiritual therapy. Congratulations and thanks to Chamber Choir Ireland, the Chatham Saxophone Quartet, James Woods and all involved in presenting this wonderful musical and spiritual experience.

http://www.chamberchoirireland.com

http://www.chathamsaxquartet.ie

http://www.choroi.net  (James Wood)

http://www.droghedaclassicalmusic.com

http://www.musicnetwork.ie

The Magic Flute at The Little Theatre

The Magic Flute is literally one of the most magical pieces of musical theatre ever written which has fascinated and entertained audiences ever since its premiere in Vienna in 1791. A sparkling, resonant and inspiring work which was first performed only two months before Mozart’s tragic and untimely death at the age of 35. The opera was originally written in German and titled ‘Die Zauberflöte’ as it was intended for an audience of the common people of Vienna who spoke German and not the aristocrats and the Imperial Court who if not always speaking Italian in their day-to-day lives, certainly only attended operas written in Italian. Die Zauberflöte was also premiered in the decidedly un-imperial surroundings of the Theatre auf der Weiden which would have been way to common for the Viennese aristocracy.

The Magic Flute is rather unique in the operatic canon in that it is often cited as a good introductory work for those who feel they dislike or are intimidated by opera yet like a lot of Mozart’s operas it is a very complex work with many layers of meanings and messages. It is a work that is at the very pinnacle of the achievements of the western musical tradition and is continually in the top five operas performed globally each year.

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The Little Theatre, Skerries, Co. Dublin.

This production was by North Dublin Opera, a relatively new company, and was presented  at The Little Theatre in Skerries, a theatre whose name didn’t disappoint as it certainly was a little theatre. The kind of performance space which should be at the heart of the arts community in towns and villages the length and breath of the country. This production was aimed at kids and was a delightful performance by an enthusiastic and energetic company who really made the effort to engage with and entertain the children in the audience. The fun and lightheartedness of the performance was quite captivating for all the kids and indeed adults there.

There was a narrator in the person of Mozart himself who introduced the story and throughout the performance kept everyone up to date with what can be a rather convoluted plot. This was a wonderful idea and was very well executed engaging the young audience with the characters. All the cast members were in very colourful costumes and make up which was very impressive and the set was minimal which I always like as it leaves more room to focus on the performance, the singing and the story being told.

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Elaine McDaid, Tim Shaffery & Rachael Hanaphy-Pigott.

The evil characters of the Queen of the Night and Monostatos were very well portrayed. Monostatos was wonderfully slinky and slithery in his black and white costume and face paint while Linda Walsh as the Queen of the Night admirably tackled one of the most difficult singing roles ever written for a soprano. To hear such an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Der Holle Rache’ from a young singer performing for kids in a small hall was a moment of pride and hopefulness for any opera lover. Tim Shaffery performed a lovable and cowardly Papageno and sung his character wonderfully while Elaine McDaid delivered a great vocal performance as Pamina. Rachael Hanaphy-Pigott’s Tamino was solid and well sung if a touch restrained while Clodagh Brennan’s Papagena was joyful and enthusiastic with the ‘Pa pa pa’ duet with Tim Shaffery bubbly, and very well acted and sung.

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Those three spirits who assist Tamino & Papagino on their quest.

The ‘three ladies’ of Catrina Scullion, Bríd Ní Ghruagáin and Clare McEvoy were adequately threatening and intimidating to poor Papagino and sung their opening ‘Die, monster, by our power’ beautifully. Their harmony singing was very impressive indeed. The ‘three boys’ in the form of three girls this time were wonderfully energetic, elfish and mischievous. (gender fluidity was workaday in opera long before the social engineers got their hands on it!).

It is a credit to the quality of Mozart’s music and the talents of these singers that even though accompanied only by Catriona Grimes on piano, this didn’t in any way take away from the effectiveness of the production or the beauty of the music. In fact in a small hall the stripped back musical accompaniment allowed the vocal abilities of the singers to shine through. The show was almost two hours long and again it was a credit to the performers and producers that they kept the attention of all the children in the theatre right to the end. No easy task, (especially with Opera), as I know only too well. When my own son was ten I took him to see the Opera Theatre Company’s wonderful English language production of The Magic Flute back in 2011. It hasn’t yet ignited a passion for opera in him but at least it allayed any fears he may have had about his fathers love of opera being bizarre and unexplainable.

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The avian lovers! Tim Shaffery & Clodagh Brennan as Papageno & Papagena.

Another particularly nice touch to this performance was the cast chatting to the audience after the performance and answering any questions from the children about opera. The production was aimed at kids and fulfilled that brief admirably but even as an adult opera lover I have to say I really enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm from the stage and was intrigued and entertained by the performance. This sort of effort to engage with younger audiences and make opera more accessible and enjoyable is exactly the kind of exercise that should be applauded, encouraged and supported. This particular production would for example be ideal to tour schools to help introduce kids to opera. A number of UK opera companies are doing this sort of engagement work with young people and it’s a lead I feel Irish opera companies would do well to follow. Well done North Dublin Opera!

http://northdublinopera.wixsite.com/northdublinopera

https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Magic-Flute

A recommendation for a DVD of a wonderful English language production of The Magic Flute which kids will love is Here

Linda Walsh who sung The Queen of the Night is also a Composer and Music Teacher and is Here

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/

Music for the Masses

Though a regular visitor to Dundalk over many years I had never been to St. Nicolas’ Church before, but knew well that imposing building that cut through the lanes of traffic at the north end of Clanbrassil Street as the prow of a ship cuts through ocean waves.

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St. Nicolas’ Church, Bridge St., Dundalk.

 

Being fashionably late I arrived to find the entire choral ensemble in full throat on the alter and unfortunately missed the Kyrie and Gloria from Haydn’s Missa Brevis (I mistook the starting time basically, apologies to all) but quietly slipped into my seat to the Jubilate from Mozart’s Benedictus sit Deus. Despite my tardy timekeeping I was rewarded by a return to Haydn’s Little Mass with a beautiful rendition of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The full compliment of singers was quite large, 60 or 70 I would guess, all turned out in black with red part books and they were certainly a credit to the Music Department of DkIT!

The program was essentially in two parts, historic and contemporary. Along with the Haydn and Mozart pieces mentioned earlier the ‘historic’ section included the Ave Maria by the Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, a very popular choral choice from the Renaissance period, beautifully delivered with restraint and solemnity befitting these earlier works. We then moved on to a selection from a composer I was delighted to hear performed, William Byrd, one of England’s greatest Renaissance composers. The program included the Gloria and Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a work that has a certain amount of intrigue surrounding it in that it was written in the 1590’s after Byrd had converted to Catholicism which was not a great career move in post Reformation England. Initially the work was undated, unsigned and even the printer didn’t put his name on the autograph.

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William Byrd (1543-1623)

This section ended with a piece by Jacobus Handl Gallus, a Renaissance composer from present day Slovenia. His Ecco quomodo moritur justus  (See how the just die) is a fittingly solemn and reverential setting of the death of Christ.

The second part of the program featured a selection of more contemporary works and opened with Bob Chilcott’s A Little Jazz Mass. Chilcott is something of a hero in modern choral circles having been a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge and then Singer and Conductor with the King’s Singers. A man with a lot of experience in the world of choral music and no doubt.

I will be honest and say that though being a big jazz fan (well bebop at least), the more spiritualist end of the jazz spectrum has never really been to my taste. Maybe being brought up in a north European Christian tradition I feel a certain jarring quality with ‘jazzy’ church music, a sort of mismatch maybe. But that would be just my own opinion and thankfully musical tastes are like the Late Late Show, there’s one for everyone in the audience!

We followed Chilcott with a little treat, Moses Hogan’s arrangement of I am his child beautifully sung and ended with a rendition of Old Time Religion, a tune whose origins have been lost in the mists of time but always rises to a round of good clapping… well done!

Bob Chilcott by John Bellars

The multi-talented Bob Chilcott

It can be problematic when singing in a foreign language (let alone Latin!) to create an emotional link with the lyrics and respond accordingly, hence glorious and joyous passages can tend to be sung in a rather restrained and academic fashion which can drain the piece of some of its emotional impact. Overall the singing was beautiful, lyrical and sweet with wonderful harmonies and melodies but a bit restrained. Of course the context of some of the material is solemn and reverential but that should not inhibit the vocal projecting the glories and beauty of this music and there were certainly enough voices to have St. Nicolas’ ringing. Conductor of the first part of the program David Connolly did seem quite regularly to be encouraging the singers to make the most of their voices and asking for more volume… more volume. The bass lines were also a touch weak and tended not to ground the music which occasionally flew off with the altos and sopranos without the earthy balance of the basses to lend form and structure.

The string and keyboard accompaniment was restrained with a number of pieces like those of Byrd and Gallus sung a cappella which is always wonderful to hear so there was plenty of room for wide vocal range and volume to show through.

Finally it would have been helpful for the conductors to give a brief introduction to the pieces we were listening to. This was quite an impressive performance of material from very different genres which I’m sure required a lot of practice and planning and the audience were left a bit lost as to what they were listening to. All told an evening of wonderful vocal works, many of which are becoming pieces of historical interest rather than the magnificent and inspiring works they are. Well done to all!

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https://www.dkit.ie/creative-arts-media-music

‘Figaro’ at the DIT Conservatory

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DIT Opera Students

Muireann Mulrooney (Contessa Almaviva) and Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna). Picture Jason Clarke.

The Irish connection to ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ goes right back to its premiere at the Burgtheatre in Vienna on 1st May 1786. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who was on friendly terms with the Mozart family performed not one but two roles on that famous night. Don Basilio, a music teacher and Count Almaviva’s confidant and fixer and Don Curzio, a judge also entrusted by the Count to enforce Marcellina’s lawsuit against Figaro.

Famously the great opera challenged contemporary social moeurs around class and sex by presenting them in the guise of humorous satire. Pierre Beaumarchais’ original play had been banned by Louis XVI of France. Napoleon Bonaperte apparently called it’s attacks on the aristocracy ‘the Revolution already put into action’. Beaumarchais revised the text and transferred the action from France to Spain and this version was reluctantly given permission for public performance and is the one Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte based their opera on.

I was surprised to see that the DIT Conservatory were preforming ‘Figaro’ as the opera doesn’t come without its difficulties. Famously convoluted cross plots, disguises & swapping of costumes and a large cast of characters can lead to an audience without some grounding in the plot lines getting completely lost. ‘Figaro’ is also a long opera of four acts taking about three hours to perform (and this is the ‘trimmed’ version performed today!) and of course it is sung in Italian. However the program did come with a extensive synopsis and gave the unwary attendee an idea of the shenanigans to follow.

The music for the performance was performed wonderfully by the DIT Symphony Orchestra, an extensive body of players of obvious talent conducted by Killian Farrell. After a very accomplished rendition of the overture and then the opening bars of ‘Cinque, dieci, venti’, I got the distinct impression that this might not be a run of the mill student production.

The set was a rather simple one of rotating backdrops, light one side with projected motifs for the indoor daytime scenes, dark the other for nighttime. I find over fussy stage sets not to my taste so this rather minimalist approach was appealing and of course gives the performers a cleaner canvas on which to paint their characters and hold the attention of the audience. The costumes were turn of the century and quite a bit of work seemed to have gone into their authenticity. They certainly added a lot to the characterisation and in conjunction with the rather sparse set created a strong visual focal point on the performers.

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Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna), Kevin Neville (Figaro) and Niamh St. John (Cherubino). Picture Jason Clarke.

Kevin Neville was a convincing Figaro, his black valets uniform drawing a contrast with other rather rakishly attired Figaros. His tenor voice was clear and bright and Amy Ni Fhearraigh was a suitably reserved yet somewhat pert Susanna again with a clear ringing tone. The entrance of Daiga Berzina and Rory Dunne as Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo respectively was quite intriguing, one could immediately sense the chemistry and comfort between these two excellent singers and actors. Their lion-taming vignette after Dunne delivers a rousing ‘La Vendetta, oh, la vendetta’ as he plots against Figaro was excellent.

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Niamh St. John (Cherubino). Picture Jason Clarke.

Also starting in Act one and indeed throughout the performance Niamh St John as Cherubino had a very strong stage presence and is a wonderful character actor. Expressive and animated she portrayed the mischievous and love struck Churebino with aplomb. As Figaro taunts Cherubino about ‘his’ imminent dispatch to the army with the stirring aria ‘Non piu andrai’, St John’s acting the part of the rather naive young soldier marching around the stage and saluting to the taunts and jokes was a comic highpoint of the performance, Wonderful.

Early in the performance an off stage problem revealed itself through the rather blurred and somewhat sketchy surtitles. The legibility of the surtitles seemed to improve considerably after the intermission although there were still passages without titling and their positioning off to the right of the stage was visually inconvenient especially for those who may not have been familiar with the opera.

Conleth Stanley accounted for himself well as Count Almaviva. He has a strong voice and a good stage presence and his interpretation of the Count had just the right mix of aloofness, vengefulness, and a touch of cruelty, while as the Contessa, Muireann Mulroney, was wonderfully reserved and melancholic delivering her anguished cavatina and aria ‘Porgi Amor’ and ‘Dove Sono’ beautifully.

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Members of the Chorus. Picture Jason Clarke.

The chorus were a joy to listen to and looked very natural on stage, not at all giving the impression of being ushered on and off when required. Of course ‘Figaro’ features some amazing choruses and these were delivered excellently.   

Act four is the one where confusion reigns onstage and possibly confusing for the uninformed viewer as at various stages the Countess, Suzanna and Cherubino are all in disguise and hiding their identity. The crossing plot lines in Act four are infamously convoluted.

Overall this was an excellently staged and thoroughly enjoyable performance notwithstanding its complexity. This was achieved with excellent musicianship, singing and acting. For opera lovers who are all too often dismayed by stories of companies closing, falling attendances and an ageing fanbase, DIT Conservatory’s production was joyous, uplifting, entertaining and very professional.

DIT Opera Students

Kevin Neville (Figaro) and Amy Ni Fhearraigh (Susanna). Picture Jason Clarke.

http://www.dit.ie/conservatory/