Owen Wingrave

Owen Wingrave had its premiere broadcast in May 1971. I say broadcast as this later work by Benjamin Britten was commissioned by the BBC as a work for TV, it didn’t get its stage premiere until 1973. The story is of a young man from a military background who refuses to continue the family tradition of service, is summoned back home to explain himself and ends up the victim of an unexplained and somewhat macabre and tragic death.


Benjamin Britten & Henry James. Britten had previously adapted another story by James, The Turn of the Screw, for the stage.

The opera opens with Wingrave and his friend Lechmere receiving instruction in tactics from Mr. Coyle, a family friend and military instructor. Lechmere is very gung-ho and is looking forward to his career in the army, he can’t wait for the adventure and excitement of military life and combat. At one stage he sings a fragment of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ in his excitement to get into action. All this grates on Wingrave and it’s during these lessons that he finally reveals his hatred and detestation of war and the military which sets in motion the chain of events that will eventually lead to his death in the haunted room at his family home of Paramore (par amour?)

Back at Paramore his family and presumed fiancé Kate find the news Coyle has brought them about Owen hard to believe and when he himself arrives home their jokes about straightening himself out and having to grow up turn to charges of disloyalty and cowardice. When Owen is disinherited by Sir Philip Wingrave, Kate sees the future she has planned wit him crumble in front of her eyes and she taunts Owen about his stupidity, selfishness and cowardice. To disprove her charge of cowardice he takes up Kate’s challenge to sleep in the haunted room at Paramore. A room where a tragic death had befallen an ancestor. A father had killed his son and then mysteriously died himself in the room and none at paramore goes into it. Owen gets Kate to lock him in to prove he is not a coward but the house is woken during the night to screams and shouts and Owen is found mysteriously dead in the room.


Peter Pears in the role of General Sir Philip Wingrave.

The opera is an adaptation of a story by Henry James which caught Britten’s eye because of its pacifist theme and he makes this the overriding message of the opera. Pacifism was an issue that was very close to Britten’s heart and informed a number of his other works, most famously the War Requiem. Britten himself was a prominent pacifist and was excused from military service during World War II as a conscientious objector. He fled to America with the tenor Peter Pears in 1939 as the tanks of totalitarianism rolled across Europe and after returning to Britain many considered this an unforgivable act of cowardice (rather like with Owen Wingrave himself?). (Not for Britten were concert tours to support the war effort like another operatic hero of mine, the amazing English contralto Kathleen Ferrier). Owen Wingrave was broadly a comment on the Vietnam War which was at its height in 1968 when Britten began to work on the opera and was becoming protracted and bogged down by the time of its broadcast in 1971. A conflict whose moral compass appeared to be much less clear cut than the one Britten has absented himself from in the early 1940’s.

Britten is not a composer I particularly enjoy in the main as I find a lot of his work quite challenging musically and a touch hard to digest. Sometimes sharp and jarring, sometimes percussive, disconcerting and un-melodic, and occasionally there is a moral undercurrent I find a touch unsettling in some of his work, not least his ability to quite happily return to a Britain saved from the evil of nazism by a military he so patently despise.

Britten conducts

Britten conducts Owen Wingrave for the BBC TV production.

The music in Owen Wingrave can be quite sparse and often merely forms a backdrop to the dialogue and action. One advantage from a singers point of view of this often withdrawn musical background is that it leaves a lot of space for voice to shine and can really show up a singers talents (or flaws). For me Britten is quite heavy handed in Owen Wingrave as he forces his political message a bit too stridently. An example of this is the continual and unabated verbal assault Owen comes under in Act II. He is attacked from all sides and Britten delineates his interpretation of right and wrong far too cleanly and then proceeds to hammer away at it continually. The situation can really only end in tragedy.

Opera Collective Ireland are currently touring Owen Wingrave in a co-production with the Académie de l’Opéra national de Paris.


Details of Opera Collective Ireland’s production are Here




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’.

Line Dancing

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.


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.

P & D

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.

tom creed

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.


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


Oh Boy! it’s Marianne Crebassa

The debut album from French mezzo Marianne Crebassa has certainly brought a warm glow to my new year at any rate. A wonderful collection of arias from some of the great trouser roles in opera sung with a beauty, power and skill that is truly inspiring. Trouser or breeches roles in opera are male characters that are played by women. Called ‘travesty’ roles in Italian, many of these roles were originally sung by castrati but are now performed mostly by mezzos but increasingly by counertenors who have a similar vocal range. (Countertenors are the highest register in male voice and with changing musical training and styles are coming back into fashion. See Philippe Jaroussky for example).


The album opens with an absolute show stopper ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’ from Orphée et Erudice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. A tour de force of shimmering singing from this seminal work which clearly announces that you are in for a real treat with this album. Mozart who wrote some great trouser roles has, at six, the greatest number of tracks on this collection. Two from the rarely performed early opera Lucio Silla from 1772. The restless and uplifting ‘Il tenero momento’ from Act I as Cecelia anticipates meeting his beloved Giunia and the heart wrenchingly beautiful ‘Pupille amate’ from Act 3 as he prepares for the last farewell to his beloved from his prison cell before being put to death. (he is pardoned eventually, and gets his girl… a happy ending, in opera!).

Marianne Crebassa as Cherubino sings ‘Voi che sapete’

On an album of great trouser roles the impish and lovestruck Cherubino from Le Nozze di Figaro has of course to make an appearance. Crebassa performed this role with aplomb for the Dutch National Opera last year and here we are treated to accomplished renditions of ‘Non so più’ where Cherubino tries to explain to a rather bemused Susanna his infatuation with women and later with ‘Voi che sapete’ he treats the distraught Countess Almaviva (our friend Rosina from ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia’) to his inner romantic machinations and torments. The rather urgent and dramatic ‘Va’ pure ad altri in braccio’ from the early and rarely performed La finta giardiniera is also included while the suitably climatic ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’ from Mozart’s last opera La Clemenza di Tito closes the collection.

Mozart’s mark on this collection doesn’t end there as there is also a tune from Reynaldo Hahn’s Mozart, an homage to the great man written in 1925 where the young Mozart is played as a trouser role. Although of a different era and style to the other pieces in this collection ‘Alors, adieu donc, mon amour!’ sits quite comfortably amongst them.


Jacques Offenbach, that most French of composers.

That most French of composers Jacques Offenbach (think, the Can-Can!) is represented by the beautiful ‘Vois sous l’archet frémissant’ with its weeping violins from his masterpiece Les Contes d’Hoffmann where Nicklausse tries to consoles the heartbroken Hoffmann by telling him that only in art can true love be found. ‘Poet, give your heart! It consoles your tears.’ We are also treated to ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’, the beautiful ballad from Act I of the again rarely performed Fantasio where Crebassa hauntingly sings the title role of the young student.

Marianne Crebassa records Offenbach’s ‘Voyez dans la nuit brune’

Continuing the roll call of great French composers Charles Gounod makes his presence felt with ‘Versez vos chagrins dans mon âme’ from Faust and the jaunty and uplifting ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’ from Roméo et Juliette where the loyal Stéphano taunts the Capulets that their beloved young Juliet will soon be amongst the Montagues with his master Roméo.


Cécile Eyreams as Urbain in ‘Les Huguenots’ and the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

Certainly one of the highlights here is the astonishing ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut’ from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots. It’s an enormous four-hour work which recounts events around the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 from a composer who was wildly popular in his day but broadly ignored today. Les Huguenots with over 1000 performances at the Paris Opéra by 1900 is possibly the most performed opera in the 19th Century (Surely a credit to the attention spans of earlier generations). Crebassa absolutely sparkles here with an incredibly agile and technically brilliant rendition. Stunning.

Another wonderfully romantic aria is ‘Ô petite étoile’ from Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera L’Étoile, an underperformed work which is returning to favour with The Royal Opera giving its Covent Garden debut last year (it was premiered in Paris in 1877). There is certainly a strong showing of lesser known works in this collection and the slow and aching  ‘Sommeil, ami des dieux’ from Psyché by Ambroise Thomas is no exception as indeed is ‘Cœur sans amour’ from the very rarely performed work Cendrillon by Jules Massenet.


Emmanuel Chabrier, Jules Massenet and Ambroise Thomas.

From start to finish this album is technically stunning and a pleasure to listen to. Incredible singing and beautiful orchestration by the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg under the baton of Marc Minkowski mean this album should be on your player with earphones at the ready for anytime you think the world isn’t romantic or beautiful enough. Without a doubt it is my first great recorded opera discovery of 2017.

Favourite tracks!

Orphée et Eurydice – ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’

Les Huguenots – ‘Nobles seigneurs, salut!’

Roméo et Juliette – ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle’

La clemenza di Tito – ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’

Marianne Crebassa’s Website

‘Oh Boy!’ on Amazon

The Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg

Opera Recital in Drogheda

As an opera lover I won’t pretend there isn’t something slightly odd about hearing songs that are meant to be part of a dramatic narrative acted out on stage being sung as a concert in formal evening wear. I want to get this personal observation out of the way before I go on to talk about this evenings performance as it relates to opera recitals in general and not this evenings concert particularly. There is of course an argument that the music is in and of itself inspiring and uplifting and that in a recital you get all the best bits without having to sit through a full opera. It is of course a wonderful treat to hear these show stoppers sung back to back like an operatic greatest hits and I know recitals are a vital part of the earning stream of many classically trained singers. Recitals also creates an opportunity for a wider audience to experience opera sung live which is certainly good so having said that I would earnestly encourage anyone who enjoys recitals to please go to full staged performances and hear these wonderful tunes sung in context alongside their brother and sister arias and choruses.


Sopranos Aoife Gibney & Amy Ní Fhearraigh.

We were back in the historic St. Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda with its wonderful atmosphere and acoustics for this concert. In his introductory remarks the Reverend Iain Jamieson reminded the audience that this is primarily a place of worship but it has to be said that it is also a wonderful performance space. Our singers this evening were Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Aoife Gibney, Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring with accompaniment on piano by Aoife O’Sullivan. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Amy Ní Fhearraigh perform as Suzanna in a fully staged production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama (Aoife Gibney also performed Contessa Almaviva but not on the night I attended). For my review click here


Tenor Owen Gilhooly & baritone Gavan Ring.

The recital itself was in a word wonderful and for me at least the programme very appropriately opened with the aria that first caught my ear and helped me realise there was this thing out there called opera. ‘Largo al factotum’ from Rossini’s masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Sung rather energetically by Gavan Ring, this classic bel-canto tongue twister set the tone for the quality of the evening to follow.

The first half of the concert featured some of the best known arias and duets in the operatic canon. After Rossini we moved to tunes by Puccini, Donizetti, Mozart and Bizet from their great operas. Aoife Gibney and Amy Ní Fhearraigh performed two fabulous duets, ‘Sull’aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro and an incredibly elegant and accomplished rendition of the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé. A slightly surprising inclusion in the programme was ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ the tragically sad aria from Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) written when he was only 23 and many years before he moved to America in 1938 to write some of his most famous pieces for Hollywood movies. The first half of the programme closed with Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring treating us to the famous duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from George Bizets’ The Pearl Fishers. What a run into the intermission…

Gavan Ring sings ‘Largo al factotum’ from The Barber of Seville

During the intermission we all retired to the parish hall for a chat and a complimentary coffee or glass of wine, well done and thank you to the organisers! It was obvious from talking to some of the concert goers that they were very impressed with the concert and keen to retake their seats for part two.

To open the second half we returned to the Italian canon with more treasures from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi and Owen Gilhooly singing a beautiful yet powerful version of ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’  from Jules Massenet’s Werther. This half also had its little surprises as well in the form of ‘O Carlo ascolta’ from Verdi’s Don Carlos sung with resonance and presence by Gavan Ring. Gavan is certainly a Baritone to watch. We also had an English language contribution in the form of ‘Tiny’s Song’ from Benjamin Britten’s early operetta Paul Bunyan sung by Aoife Gibney and for a finale we were treated to a rousing all hands on deck rendition of the ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s La Traviata with all the singers dancing ’round the stage.

One observation I would make is that on an evening that was essential a greatest hits of opera, 14 of the songs were in Italian, 4 in French and 1 each in German and English. This rather clearly illustrates the grip Italy has on the public perception of opera or at least the type of opera that triumphs at wonderfully memorable tunes at any rate.

I thoroughly enjoyed the concert with its selection of operatic classics peppered with a few off kilter contributions that added a bit of variety to the programme and the standing ovation for the performers at the end of the evening was very well deserved.




The Heretic Pharaoh

Philip Glass disliked much of the dissonant music that was championed by the Second Viennese School and their followers in the European avant grade. He was much more attracted to the emerging minimalist style of fellow American composers like Terry Reilly and Steve Reich and he was also heavily influenced by the repetitive and hypnotic ragas he heard while visiting his friend Ravi Shankar in India in the 1960’s. From these two influences emerged the quite tonal arpeggios which were to become the signature of Glass’ music.


Philip Glass.

Glass was not only a composer of orchestral music and to date has composed 14 operas 3 of which he has called his ‘portrait series’. These are operas about great men who have affected the course of human history. Firstly Albert Einstein in Einstein on the Beach, Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha and finally the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in Akhnaten (for some reason Glass dropped the first ‘e’). Each man in turn greatly influencing the history of humanity in the areas of Science, Politics and Religion respectively.

For a modern opera Akhnaten which had its premiere in 1984 is a very accessible work and is not as starkly minimalist as some of Glass’ music. It is certainly an opera for those who may like listening to the classic repertoire and would like to dip a toe into some more modern work without being scared off by excessive percussion, atonality or dissonance. The music in much of Akhenaten is seductive and at times incredibly beautiful and lyrical. Akhnaten is musically even more accessible to those who listen to more modern popular music because it has a strong rhythmic element which tends to be absent from most of the operatic canon. If you are of the opinion that opera is long beyond its sell-by date, and there are a few who hold this opinion, then best avoid this piece altogether and stick to Nessun Dorma.


Image of Akhenaten and Nefertiti found at Amarna in 1881.

The opera opens with the funeral of Akhnaten’s father the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and the ascension to the throne of his son who then takes Nefertiti as his queen. He then stuns one and all by announcing that he is to abolish the old religion of the ancient gods of Egypt and institute a new one where there is only one God. Aten shall be the new and only deity and Akhnaten shall be his intermediary on earth. You begin to see now why Glass found the story of Akhnaten so interesting and worthy of his musical attentions. He was the first person in documented history to establish a monotheistic religion and there is a school of thought that all monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam flow from Akhnaten’s founding idea.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children with the god Aten shinging down on them, and a statue of Akhenaten.

Banishing the old priesthood from their temples he installs belief in Aten as the only true religion. He then proceeds to move the royal capital from Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) which he is building from scratch further north along the River Nile. This idea of the Pharaoh turning his back on the ancient gods deeply offended the priesthood and followers of the old religion who spread discontent about the new king who by now has moved with his followers to his new capital city. There he shuts himself and his family away in his new palace to worship Aten and presumably to ruminate on his new found position as intermediary between God and mere mortals.


Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten for English National Opera.

Well I suppose it wouldn’t be an opera if it didn’t end in tears and eventually his people rise against Akhenaten killing him and all his family, destroy his city and return to Thebes to reinstate the old traditions and gods. The opera ends with modern day tourists walking through the ancient ruins of Akhetaten as the ghosts of Akhnaten and his family wander amidst the sand and stones.

There are a number of intriguing things about this opera. Firstly the work is scored for an orchestra with no violins. The story goes that the Stuttgart State Opera where the premiere was meant to be held was being renovated so the Stuttgart State Theatre was used instead. The orchestra pit was too small so Glass just dropped the violins and rescored the music. Another intriguing point is that the narration is spoken in the language of the audience while most of the opera itself is sung in Egyptian, Akkadian (an ancient language from Mesopotamia) and Hebrew. Finally and very oddly for a modern opera the lead role is written for a countertenor, the highest of male voices. Akhnaten’s queen Nefertiti is cast as a mezzo soprano and in their duets she actually sings lower than him.

Akhnaten CD.jpg

There are a number of recordings of this work circulating and the one I have is one with most of the original Stuttgart cast conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra in 1987. This is one of those rather off-kilter operas that you trip across now and again that turns out to be an absolute gem. The more I listen to it the more its beautiful music grows on me. I highly recommend listening to Akhnaten and indeed looking into the whole story of this utterly fascinating Pharaoh.

English National Opera presented a new production of Akhnaten earlier this year and LAOpera open their production run on November 10th this year.

Philip Glass’ website

Ancient Egypt Online

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.choroi.net  (James Wood)



Don Giovanni Unmasked

It’s a wonderful season for Irish fans of Mozart and his operatic masterpiece Don Giovanni in particular with productions both north and south of the border. Opera Theatre Company premiered their very well received production with a new translation by Roddy Doyle at the Gaiety Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival earlier this month to packed houses before moving on to Cork Opera House and Northern Ireland Opera will be presenting their production at the Grand Opera House Belfast from Friday 18th November. The Belfast production is tinged with a touch of sadness as it is the final work produced for the company by Oliver Mears who was so instrumental in the creation of Northern Ireland Opera in 2010 and its achievements and successes since.


Two Irish productions of Don Giovanni this season.

Anyone who has been to one of Mears productions will appreciate his vision, creativity and directorial skills, skills which he is now taking to London as the newly appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

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I’m always very interested in ways to attract younger people to the wonders and beauty of opera whether it be the outreach and schools programmes of opera companies or the comic strips of operas published by the now unfortunately defunct Sinfinimusic, so having attended Don Giovanni in Dublin and as usual having come away from the theatre inspired by the experience and humming the tunes I was keen to let my 13 year old son experience something of the opera. After attempting to help him with his algebra homework I started  doing a bit of digging online and stumbled across ‘Don Giovanni Unmasked’. This is a  film interpretation of the opera directed by Barbara Willis Sweete who directs many of the Metropolitan Opera Live productions and features the amazing Russian Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as both Don Giovanni himself and his trusty servant Leporello. (Hvorostovsky is recovering from a brain tumor he suffered last year and best wishes to him for a speedy recovery. In bocca al lupo Dmitri!).


Dmitri Hvorostovsky, ‘Double’ star of Don Giovanni Unmasked.

This ingenious retelling of the story is perfect for younger people. It is a shortened version of the opera coming in at less than an hour and though sung in the original Italian the subtitles are short and succinct and make the story perfectly clear. Hvorostovsky as Leporello and the cast of the opera are in a 1930’s cinema and watch themselves perform Don Giovanni on screen as Giovanni’s dalliances eventually result in his downfall and damnation. The way the story unfolds is ingenious and entertaining and the singing is quite spectacular. I certainly recommend this film as a primer for Don Giovanni for newer and more seasoned opera fans alike and it is worth watching for Hvorostovsky’s singing alone which is intense, dramatic and simply spectacular.

My son sat through it, understood it and by all accounts enjoyed it. I call that a result!

Don Giovanni Unmasked is available from Amazon here

Tickets for Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Don Giovanni can be booked here

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!



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

La Passion de Simone

Well the Summer holidays are truly over and we’re all back at our desks and here at Operakey I’m delighted to be back doing what I love doing most… talking Opera! I will be looking at some of the operas I have been listening to over the summer which will include works by Harrison Birtwistle, Philip Glass, Albert Lortzing & Vincenzo Bellini. I will also be reviewing the upcoming and eagerly awaited production of Don Giovanni by Opera Theatre Company with a new translation by Roddy Doyle but first to a composer who I have been listening to quite a lot recently and one who we have looked at previously here on Operakey, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (see L’Amour de loin). This time we will be looking at ‘La Passion de Simone’ which is technically an oratorio but lets not concern ourselves with that.


Kaija Saariaho

Saariaho attended the Freiburg conservatory of music in Germany and studied under a regime of strict serialism (imagine – percussive, atonal, dissonance) where she says

‘you were not allowed to have pulse or tonally orientated harmonies or melodies’

and later she came under the influence of the Spectral composers. Spectralism, which developed in France in the 1970’s, involved experimenting with the use of computers in composition and though some of the works in this style can be rather angular and anaemic Saariaho marries these electronic elements which are often quite subtle with tonal orchestration to create a truly beautiful and ethereal style.


Simone Weil, 1909 -1943.

The inspiration for ‘La Passion de Simone’ was the life and death of the French philosopher, political activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil who starved herself to death in an English sanatorium in 1943, aged 34, in empathy with the hardships and suffering of her fellow countrymen under Nazi occupation. Weil was an incredibly complex and fascinating individual and some knowledge of her life is certainly helpful in appreciating this work.

The libretto is by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf who Saariaho regularly collaborates with and takes the form of fifteen sections or ‘Stations’ as they are called to evoke the comparison with the Stations of the Cross (Saariaho very much sees Weil’s life as a spiritual journey) and the piece in many ways takes the form of a traditional Passion Play as each station deals with a specific event or period in Weil’s tragic life. At the core of the piece is Weil’s continual struggle against injustice and inhumanity and the desire not only to sympathise with but also to actually experience the pain and suffering of others, be they struggling for economic survival (her insistence on working in factories) or for political or national freedom (she briefly fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War and for the French Resistance in World War II).


Soprano Pia Freund, accompanied by a silent dancer.

There is only one main character in this work, Weil’s imaginary sister who sings her thoughts and feelings about the various stages in Weil’s life while a narrator occasionally reads passages from her writings and a small chorus provides colour and resonance to the vocal style. Like other works by Saariaho La Passion de Simone has a very spiritual and ethereal feel, an almost floating unworldly quality that seduces the listener into its soundscape. The stage setting for the original production was by the rather controversial American director Peter Sellars and features the singer on a raised platform and very little else. As mentioned in previous posts I am a fan of minimalist stage design and the lack of visual clutter works particularly well with a piece like this which is so musically and vocally absorbing, the movements and expressions of the singer being the conduit for the emotional strength of the libretto.


Soprano Julia Bullock at the Ojai Music Festival

The orchestration echoes and reinforces the themes of each of the stations whether it be the percussive and almost threatening style of the 5th and 6th station where Weil, despite her education and comfortable life chooses to work in factories in order to live the experiences of poor people or the almost angelic and otherworldly style of the 13th (‘Slowly you give up the ghost my little sister Simone’). and 14th (‘Every evil is aroused in the world’) station as Weil fades away and eventually dies of malnutrition.

La Passion de Simone is an impressively beautiful and haunting work and like much of Saariaho’s output it bucks the trend to more dissonant stylings in much contemporary vocal composition. Yes, traumatic or disturbing passages in the libretto are accompanied by surging and angular orchestration but this is to serve the text and the overall power of the work is in its beauty and its ability to take the listener into the world it creates and hold them there. I strongly advise readers to listen to more of Saariaho’s choral and orchestral works as she is certainly one of the most impressive contemporary composers and one gets the impression that despite the very modern feel of much of her work and the subtle use of electronica she is a composer who has a great love of the classical and impressionist traditions.


The recording I have is on the Ondine label and features American Soprano Dawn Upshaw for whom the soprano piece was originally written. It is quite a demanding vocal piece and Upshaw’s performance is moving and absorbing (she missed the world premiere in Vienna while under treatment for breast cancer but performed the UK, French and US premieres).



Opera as High Art?


One of the main criticisms of opera is that it is exclusive, expensive and irrelevant. To quote Georgia Rivers of Opera Australia it is seen as ‘boring intimidating entertainment for rich stuffy people’. An expression of high culture snootiness that without taxpayer support would instantly disappear from the public imagination and become the preserve of antique music enthusiasts swapping sound clips and historical trivia on obscure social media chat groups.

Is there anything to this charge? well quite a bit actually and confronting this issue head on is one of the greatest challenges facing the opera world today. It is certainly the elephant in the room during most opera discussions I have and to be honest a quick ‘ah… but the facts are…’ retort can be difficult to come by.

Was opera always perceived like this. Is opera, like the pricing of good Champagne, more about keeping certain people out than about making a wondrous experience available to as many as possible. Was opera always a way for the rich to express their cultural exclusivity. Did it always have what marketers today might call a ‘Luxury Brand Positioning’.

Apparently not…
The birth of opera is usually dated around 1600 and its incubator was the homes of the merchants of Renaissance Florence. The dark ages had been just a bit too dark for the newly elevated mercantile classes of central and northern Italy and what better way to banish the memories of those rather pungent northerners with their beer, bearskins and beards than through entertainment. Music, singing and dance!

In a cultural landscape dominated by the Church these merchants began to crave a cultural expression of their own. They wanted to define a new type of entertainment that reflected their values and standing in society yet one which would also be entertaining, creative and popular. This duality of requirements on the ‘call for tenders’ if you will was to be the key to the success of opera. The general public could go to hear beautiful songs sung by the best singers and performers of the day and the wealthy could sit in their boxes and appreciate the creative artistry and classical stories acted out on the stage. These two groups didn’t have to mix, there were stalls (very often standing only) for the less well off and a circle and boxes for the better off. Opera houses were run rather like the early train operators with their different class carriages. Third class didn’t rub shoulders with first class but everyone got what they paid for and to their destination.


The old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Stalls below with Boxes and Dress Circle above

For much of operas history this was the business model promoters used and it sat quite happily into the class structures of Europe as the way opera worked. All social classes attended and got from it whatever they wanted. Literally opera for everyone. But around the end of the nineteenth century, which many would consider the twilight of the classic period for opera, a move to appropriate opera for high culture and wrestle it away from ordinary people was well under way with various walls being erected to exclude much of operas traditional audience. Higher prices, dress codes, social etiquettes, singing in an operas original language. All these bars to common access and appreciation of opera started to coalesce into the image many people have of opera today.

Much of this emerging elitism about opera originated in America which didn’t have the historical class structures of Europe where as alluded to earlier, different social strata had always attended opera. The upper class in Europe had a full suite of other cultural activities that affirmed their status and position but the absence of these in America led to its wealthy being very enthusiastic about the establishment of cultural exclusivity and the appropriation of opera played a major part in this.

This shifting of the social focus and purpose of opera from entertainment and popular cultural experience to a form of semi impenetrable high art was one that opera has never really recovered from. For decades now the earnings of major opera houses have increased and in many countries funding is prioritised by governments that view opera as a national cultural asset, but attendance figures are flat or falling and audiences are ageing. We have reached a point where most people don’t really see the point of opera anymore and wonder why they are still paying for it out of their taxes.

It is heart breaking for those of us who love opera to watch the taxpayer funded defibrillator applied yet again to opera and the minister for arts shout ‘clear’ knowing that one day he’ll shout and the body may not move. It’s certainly a balancing act, knowing how not to alienate the more conservative older more affluent followers who have seen opera through some pretty thin times yet attract new younger audiences to a vibrant, meaningful and entertaining experience. Opera must always have a uniqueness, too much work has gone into its creation and performance for it to be merely humdrum popular entertainment, but every effort must be made to return it to its rightful and original owners, the general public. Everyone is entitled to own something special.