Irish opera finds its voice again, after years of discord


With Lyric Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Aida at the Gaiety Theatre last week, the Arts Council’s post-apocalyptic strategy for supporting opera has completed its first year of productions.

Apocalyptic, you ask? Well, let’s recap. A few years ago the council decided to shut down Opera Ireland (OI), Opera Theatre Company (OTC) and Wexford Festival Opera, and create a single, new national company based in Wexford. To be fair, the town has an opera house, but not much of a recent history of supporting opera outside of its annual festival.

Ministerial intervention wisely scuppered that plan, and replaced it with another, for a new national company to subsume the functions of OI and OTC.

Shilly-shallying by the minister who came up with the idea (Martin Cullen) and inaction by his successor (Mary Hanafin), a lack of dynamic action and a shortage of political nous by the new company’s board, and bureaucratic dragging of heels in the Department of Arts and the Arts Council led to the current Minister for the Arts Jimmy Deenihan quickly killing off the whole project.

Meanwhile, OI went to the wall and publicly-funded, full-scale opera disappeared from the capital for more than a year, until 2012 saw a new funding structure put in place. It supported an innovative, community-embracing production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, Wide Open Opera’s ground-breaking production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, a revival of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Gaiety Theatre (in Oliver Mears’s not-quite-on-target updating, but with a fresh new Gretel in Kim Sheehan) and last week a new production of Verdi’s Aida by Lyric Opera, also at the Gaiety.

Unless I’m mistaken, this was only Lyric Opera’s second venture in an actual theatre, following its presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Belfast’s Grand Opera House last March – its regular base is the National Concert Hall, with all the limitations that imposes. And the new Aida, directed by Lyric’s artistic director Vivian Coates, with designs by Conor Murphy (sets) and Joan O’Clery (costumes) would seem to mark a watershed in the company’s history in a way that Butterfly certainly didn’t.

Yes, there were a number of weaknesses. Coates, who left Aida in ancient Egypt, did take it into his mind to add a few gratuitous references about violence in contemporary Africa. Some of the smaller roles were very weakly cast, and, musically, there were moments which were far from tight – conductor Tecwyn Evans with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra in the pit, never really gave the feeling of being close to Verdi’s idiom.

But the Aida, Canadian soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah, warmed to her task, and was in genuinely affecting form at the end. Irish mezzo soprano Imelda Drumm was fine and firm as her rival Amneris, and American tenor Michael Wade Lee had a heroic edge, if not always sufficient vocal polish, as the object of their affections, Radamès.

In the wider scheme of things, this production fell somewhere between the style of two defunct companies, the late Bernadette Greevy’s Anna Livia Dublin International Opera Festival and Opera Ireland.

* It’s quite a leap from Aida to the kind of fare offered by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England. The opening weekend featured the Crash Ensemble in a portrait of its artistic director Donnacha Dennehy, and in separate programmes of American Originals and Irish Mavericks.

Dennehy’s music is high on nervous energy. It obsesses over intricacies of rhythm and pitch which, as it were, lie between the cracks – the notes fragment and bend in unexpected ways. It features instrumental balances that are only achievable with amplification, and it shows a fondness for the kind of high-impact effects more associated with rock concerts than with symphony orchestras.

For all its business and energy, it is, however, a slow-moving music. Hearing a whole programme of Dennehy’s music, I was paradoxically reminded of two composers of an earlier generation who might seem like totally incongruous companions. I thought of the pointillist effects of Canteloube’s orchestration of Baïlèro, the most famous of his Songs of the Auvergne, and of the rich textures that Rachmaninov weaves in many of his piano works.

The flavour in Dennehy is completely different, of course. And the complexity is of a much higher order. But what lingered in the mind most after a whole concert of his work was the extraordinary texturisation of the material. This is music that uses its sometimes frantic activity to create luxuriant surfaces that shimmer and buzz, and which have a richness that makes them rarely easy to keep in sharp focus.

The hit of the evening, to judge by the applause, was Grá agus Bás, with the voice of sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird magnified to dominate the instrumental ensemble, and provide a focus that the evening’s other works (Streetwalker, As an Nós, and Disposable Dissonance) never quite delivered. Crash’s handling of Grá agus Bás has mellowed over the years. The gut-wrenching, percussive viscerality of the earliest performances has been tamed, and Ó Lionáird (who still has a helper pointing him to his place on the pages in front of him) sounds more at home, more to the fore, and more pressingly plaintive.

* Crash’s American Originals were Arnold Dreyblatt, whose Resonant Relations sounds like a minimalist dance where all the harmonies have been bent out of kilter, Nico Muhly, whose Drones, Variations, Ornaments has more than a whiff of Hollywood sentimentality about it, and Glenn Branca, whose Thought might best be described as an extended ugly drone with attitude.

The Irish Mavericks were actually a more interesting bunch, with plenty of extremes to turn to. Ed Bennett’s Stop-Motion Music is an archetypal Crash piece: punchy, glitzy, in your face, locked in a groove.

Linda Buckley’s do you remember the planets? for viola and electronics sounded almost old-fashioned by comparison. Gerald Barry’s string quartet, First Sorrow, moves from spareness into fullness into an extraordinary and unexpectedly haunting setting of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, sung by the four musicians to their own accompaniment. Kevin Volans’s Looping Point brings to mind a demented pianist practising études as if on a treadmill, with interpolations from the rest of the ensemble. And Andrew Hamilton’s music for people who like art, a 60th birthday present for Volans, sets words by Ad Reinhardt from 25 Lines of Words on Art: Statement with highly-controlled, explosive breathlessness, the music moving with the unpredictability of jumpy film editing.

It was both exhilarating and maddening, and Crash, especially the hard-worked mezzo soprano Michelle O’Rourke, made it sound like the ride of a lifetime.

* This article was amended on Wedesday, November 21st to correct a factual error.

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