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.

DIT Opera Students

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/