The way to Wexford: a strange beauty behind the scenes at the opera
Attending rehearsals of a Massenet double bill ahead of the Wexford Festival Opera was a deja vu experience
Nora Sourouzian and Brian Mulligan in dress rehearsals for Thérèse. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
When I was young, six or seven, I saw part of a film being shot in the Phoenix Park. It turned out to be about the most unglamorous thing you could imagine. A van moved the same short distance under bright lights again and again, for what seemed an interminable length of time. The process and the final product were further apart than my young brain could make sense of.
I popped into a rehearsal at Wexford Festival Opera last week, and had a kind of deja vu experience. The festival’s Massenet double bill – Thérèse and La Navarraise – was being rehearsed in the Jerome Hynes Theatre, where the floor was bare save for the criss-crossings of tape to mark out the set outlines. At the back were two costumes, forlorn on a rail, with a pair of pink shoes beside them. Four singers sat in front of music stands, two of the men slouching comfortably, with the stands cradled between crossed legs.
The hard-working pianist, coffee perched within easy reach at the bass end of the piano, was absorbed by everything, following the layers of multilingual discussion, explication and inquiry and reading the conductor’s gestures carefully to guide his orchestral fakery.
There was a team of assistants at desks with computers and stickies and highlighters, busying themselves with the annotation of scores and storyboards to keep a record of everything that was going on, including the occasional intervention by the director. And the singers often spared their voices, making sounds that were so quiet, almost private, that it was hard to relate the sometimes strangely beautiful effect to the fuller-toned projection that will be heard on the double-bill’s opening night on October 23rd.
The preparations I caught were part of the hard graft of opera rehearsal, a process that often might seem to have no natural end and which usually seems a million miles away from the larger-than-life extravagance of opera on stage. But those very workaday sessions are the chrysalis that will release the gorgeous butterfly that so much opera wants to be. All will be revealed on the opening night.
A week of early music
This week was dominated by the East Cork Early Music Festival, which brought a new orchestra into being, and saw the English choir The Sixteen visit Ireland for the first time since an appearance at the Belfast Festival in 2000.
The three Cork concerts I caught over the festival’s opening two days were highly varied. The opening programme from More Hispano and its director, recorder player Vicente Parrilla, presented a programme called Glosas & Improvisations, bringing the group’s own style of embellishment and improvisation to Renaissance music from Spain and Italy.
There was a sense of progression to the evening, with the freest music-making reserved for the end, and with the guest appearances by singer Camilla Griehsel also upping the temperature. At its best, the group’s style came as close as anything I’ve heard to an early-music jam session, with caution thrown to the wind.
Cellist Aoife Nic Athlaoich, accompanied by two members of More Hispano, offered a lunchtime recital that reached back beyond Bach to one of the Ricercars for solo cello by the 17th- century Italian composer Domenico Gabrielli.