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

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.

Her strongest suit, however, turned out to be a sonata by Francesco Geminiani, an 18th-century Italian who looms large in the history of violin playing. (Geminiani spent a considerable time in Dublin, and died in the city in 1762.) Here, her playing had a sculpted quality that allowed Geminiani’s Sonata in D minor, Op 5 No 2 to easily outshine the Vivaldi (the Sonata No 4 in B flat) that opened the programme.

The Cork festival has a new artistic director, violinist Marja Gaynor, who has decided to capitalise on the strength of early musicians in and from Cork by forming a new Cork Baroque Orchestra.

It had a difficult debut, as Jörn Boysen, the man who was to have directed its inaugural concert, was too ill to travel, and had to be replaced at short notice by Finnish harpsichordist and conductor Aapo Häkkinen. In its programme of Corelli, Handel, Muffat and Vivaldi, the orchestra sounded best in the vigorous thrust of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B minor Op 6 No 12 and Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for four violins.

Christophers back in Dublin
It’s been 25 years since Harry Christophers blew a gust of fresh air into the history of Handel’s Messiah in Dublin, in a performance at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham with the RTÉ Chorus and RTÉ Concert Orchestra. His return, with his own choir The Sixteen, for concerts at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday (pairing Palestrina and James MacMillan) and the National Concert Hall on Sunday (all-Handel) are as likely to be as fondly remembered as his Dublin debut in 1988.

Can Palestrina and MacMillan ever have sounded closer, more connected, than they did at St Patrick’s? Christophers and his singers gave the impression of revealing core values in the music with unfailing directness and dignity. The style had an intriguing neutrality, like the delivery of an actor who sees a multitude of meanings in a text, and manages to suggest them all, without forcing the listener to prioritise one over another. At the NCH, the style was altogether more extrovert, the demonstrativeness of Handel treated with joyful virtuosity, the effortlessly florid contribution of soprano soloist Lucy Crowe in Silete venti bringing a roar of approval from the audience.

O’Conor and Beethoven
Beethoven Made Me was the title John O’Conor gave to his fundraising concert for the Dublin International Piano Competition on Monday. O’Conor is a skilled raconteur, and knows how to pace himself in front of an appreciative audience.

His performances of three of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas – the Pathétique, the Moonlight and the Appassionata – were interlaced with stories about his earliest encounters with Beethoven’s music, the approaches of his teachers Dieter Weber and Wilhelm Kempff, his own remonstrations to pupils, and descriptive imagery and well-chosen examples to set the emotional tone of the performances.

On Monday, those performances were sensitive and secure, and always persuasively Beethovenian. Für Elise made an appearance as an encore, along with a set of Scottish Dances that are among Beethoven’s most ear wormish creations.

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