Irish opera picking up international awards as Arts Council decision imminent

Smart money still on the Wide Open Opera/Opera Theatre Company bid to become the council’s new major opera supplier

Wide Open Opera and Landmark Productions have won the€150,000 Fedora General Prize for Opera for their production of ‘The Second Violinist’. Photograph: Hugh O’Conor

Wide Open Opera and Landmark Productions have won the€150,000 Fedora General Prize for Opera for their production of ‘The Second Violinist’. Photograph: Hugh O’Conor

 

Opera in Ireland is still up in the air as the Arts Council is in the middle of a process that is intended to deliver a new opera company to serve both Dublin and regional centres. Internationally, Irish opera has been doing well. Wexford Festival Opera won the Festival category at this year’s International Opera Awards in London. Wexford was shortlisted in the Festival category in 2013, when it lost out to the Salzburg Festival, and in 2016, when it lost to Glyndebourne.

Its previous success in the awards came in 2014, when it won the Rediscovered Work category, for Foroni’s Cristina, regina di Svezia. The festival was shortlisted in the same category for Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff in 2016, but lost out to Offenbach’s Le Roi Carotte.

In terms of repertoire, it’s interesting to see what a crowded market Wexford is in. The winning rediscovered work for 2017 was Polish composer Wladyslaw Zelenski’s Goplana, and the also-rans were Casella’s La donna serpente, Cesti’s Le nozze in sogno, Donizetti’s Olivo e Pasquale, Giordano’s La cena delle beffe and Oscar Straus’s Die Perlen der Cleopatra

The production of La cena delle beffe was at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the opera has a particular resonance in the history of opera in Ireland. Wexford did that particular work in 1987, directed by Patrick Mason and designed by Joe Vanek. The 30-year-old American soprano Alessandra Marc made an unforgettable debut in the production, and the length of the final applause, I’ve been told, set a new record for the festival.

The Wexford Festival is involved in a bid in the current Arts Council process, where its only surviving competitor is a joint venture by Wide Open Opera and Opera Theatre Company, two companies where the commanding presence is Fergus Sheil. One of Sheil’s other collaborations, between Wide Open Opera and Landmark Productions, has been announced as the winner of the 2017 Fedora-Generali Prize for Opera which brings not just kudos or a beautiful gong, but an impressive €150,000 cash prize.

The prize is given only to “promising teams of co-producing partners and artists who collaborate on the creation of new opera”, and winning co-productions are intended to be “staged at different opera houses and festivals which will benefit from major visibility and attract an international audience”.

Wide Open Opera and Landmark beat competition from Teatro alla Scala, English National Opera, the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and Danish National Opera. The €150,000 prize will have a much bigger impact in Ireland than it would, say, in La Scala, where the annual budget is around €120 million.

The award, which was announced at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival last weekend, will enable the two Irish companies “to forge new producing partnerships” for their production of The Second Violinist, the second opera by Donnacha Dennehy to a libretto by Enda Walsh, and “ensure that this new Irish opera tours internationally in 2018”. Irish audiences will get to experience it first, when it is premièred at the Galway Arts Festival on Thursday, July 27th, and it comes to the Dublin Theatre Festival on Monday, October 2nd.

Lismore’s Arts Council struggles

The smart money, by the way, is still on the Wide Open Opera/Opera Theatre Company bid to become the Arts Council’s new major opera supplier. A six-figure award would probably be unthinkable at this stage for the Lismore Opera Festival, whose Arts Council struggles have centred on the loss and regaining of a grant of around €10,000. Lismore is funded through the Arts Council’s Festival and Events scheme which, with its strands and funding ceilings, sometimes seems like the arts funding equivalent of manipulating waiting list figures in our health system.

The Lismore festival, with its productions given in the stable yard of Lismore Castle, covered-over but open to the elements at one end, has long been turning the peculiarities of its setting to its advantage, in a way that the now-defunct Castleward Festival in Co Down never quite managed in its equally unusual performing space: the interior of a wing of a stable yard.

The yard’s large, round drinking fountain is a given for all kinds of near-miss and genuinely watery shenanigans, and Lismore is happy to use any excuse to bring on a novel form of transport. Last year it was horses in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, this year it was a Piaggio Ape van, for Dr Dulcamara to sell his quack remedies from in an updating of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.

L’elisir d’amore, directed by Dieter Kaegi, with sets by Martin Boylan and costumes by Slawek Narwid, took a little time to warm up, with conductor Marco Zambelli having some trouble keeping the singers and the more substantial than usual ensemble in step with each other.

But the leads were strong, Irish tenor Anthony Kearns a clear, musicianly and appealing Nemorino, and Polish soprano Ania Jeruc a spirited and agile Adina.

Corcoran CD lanched

Hamburg-based Irish composer Frank Corcoran’s new RTÉ Lyric FM CD, Rhapsodic Celli, was officially launched at a concert of his music at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday. Corcoran is a composer who has always seemed at his best when being a kind of a musical badass. But the music on the CD and the selection at the concert sound like him turning over a new leaf, showing an intentionally more mellow side of his musical character. Sadly, I was not persuaded by the concert and have not yet been persuaded by the CD.

  mdervan@irishtimes.com

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