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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Statue of Acis & Galatea

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!)

Acis & Galatea

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.

Anton Bruckner führte die Männer zusammen

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