Operatic treats: Dvorak’s fairy tale and a love doll of Mrs Mahler
The past week saw operatic premieres in Dublin by Raymond Deane and, of all people, Antonin Dvorak
Following the break-up of his affair with Alma Mahler (above), the obsessive Kokoschka is despondent until he commissions a life-sized, anatomically accurate replica of his former lover
Just now, milestones in Irish opera are arriving in bunches like those proverbial buses. The Irish premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Wexford Festival Opera’s annual unearthing of forgotten treasures are both due next month, while the past week has seen operatic premieres in Dublin by Raymond Deane and, of all people, Antonin Dvorak.
For Deane it was the world premiere – in concert performance – of his The Alma Fetish with Wide Open Opera at the National Concert Hall. One night later at the Gaiety Theatre, Lyric Opera Productions gave the Dublin premiere of Dvorak’s Rusalka. This was six years after its Irish premiere at Wexford and 112 years after it first opened in Prague in 1901.
It was an extraordinary pairing of operas for anyone who attended both, not because of the immense differences of sound, style, mood and complexity between them, but – quite unexpectedly – because of their striking similarity. Both works expose aspects of human longing and frailty.
Deane’s love doll
Deane and librettist Gavin Kostick approach these through the bizarre-but-true, stranger-than-fiction story of painter Oskar Kokoschka, while Dvorak accesses them via the collective unconsciousness of a fairy tale. Following the break-up of his affair with the titular Alma Mahler (the widow of composer Gustav), the obsessive Kokoschka is despondent until he commissions a life-sized, anatomically accurate replica of his former lover from a renowned doll-maker.
Deane (who told me nearly 20 years ago that Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann was among his favourite operas because of the doll, Olympia) has produced a lavish, emotionally loaded score in which he revels like a boy in a toy shop in the great cross-wash of late romantic orchestral density and expressionist new beginnings that characterised music in Vienna in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
The period also features an age of decadence, and embraces the ages of existentialism and of Freud, all of which find voice in the tension and pressing intensity of Deane’s music.
At the same time, the opera’s central conceit even recalls the troubling relationship between the unhinged Tom Hanks character and the volleyball Wilson in desert-island drama Cast Away (2000).
Deane relieves the tension at judiciously measured intervals over the opera’s two one-hour acts. The chorus, for example, creates a pause for the cast by reflecting on the action in passages featuring both richly chordal writing and the intricacies of counterpoint. Relief also arrives in the tumultuous climax of the first World War battle scene in which Kokoschka is injured, and in the delicious juxtaposition of his existential ruminations with the maid’s banal but immediate concerns about tea.
Kokoschka’s eventual, furious destruction of the doll is catastrophic in impact. The opera ends quietly when, 20 years later, Kokoschka and Alma reminisce briefly during a chance meeting in Vienna. Then they go their separate ways.