Who lives in a house like this?
The KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival is taking a liberal view of its title – which is not without its benefits
In the old days, I heard it said of what was then the Festival in Great Irish Houses that its fans were more likely to be excited about a particular year’s choice of houses, than about the performers or the music. The festival, now known as KBC Great Music in Irish Houses, has kept the houses in its name but rather strayed from them in its programme. I attended the first four concerts of this year’s programme, and found myself wondering what a festival that purports to offer music in “houses” was doing at the National Concert Hall or the Irish Waterways Visitor Centre.
The visitor centre, at Grand Canal Quay in Dublin, does at least offer the kind of intimacy that the festival’s houses of yore did, and hearing a violinist of the fiery temperament of Alina Ibragimova at close quarters is a very special kind of thrill.
Musically, she’s very much a straight talker, someone who’s prepared to take composers at their word. She seems almost to shun the conventions that see so many performers broadening the tempo to accommodate particular technical challenges, smoothing melodic contours in case they be perceived as too rough, or softening the impact of transitions lest they appear too abrupt. When Ibragimova sounds different, it’s often because she’s delivering exactly what’s in the composer’s score.
Her playing of Prokofiev’s two violin sonatas with Steven Osborne on piano was edge of the seat stuff, the First exuding a kind of dark heat, the more songful Second sounding all the more impressive for being drained of some of its sweetness. Between the two was the stillness of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. The evening’s one drawback was instrumental. Osborne was provided with a short piano, too light in the bass to provide the weight of sonority that’s required at key moments in the first of the Prokofiev sonatas.
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt returned to the festival to play at the NCH. She seemed to want to treat Schubert’s Valses nobles, D969, as being rather grander statements than they actually are, and was taken well outside her comfort zone by Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. She was, however, on home territory in the second half, when she offered the first 10 fugues from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, introducing them with insight and wit, and playing them with a suave finesse that made their knottiness seem almost easy on the ear and, at the same time, presented them as a pianistic tour-de-force.
My two other festival concerts were disappointing. Tenor Paul McNamara in the Peppercanister Church took an inappropriately pressured Wagnerian approach to a range of songs not by Wagner, and he sounded fully at home only when he got to an encore that was actually by Wagner. And the Apollon Musagète Quartet were disappointingly wide of the mark in Killruddery House in big quartets by Tchaikovsky (his First Quartet) and Schubert (the Death and the Maiden Quartet).
An Earnest UK premiere
Friday brought the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London – the world premiere staging was given by the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy in February, and the Irish premiere is due from NI Opera in Derry in October.
The opera is in demand because, although it truncates the text (Barry estimates he ditched two thirds of it), it leaves the essentials of the Wilde intact, and it is very funny. Kasper Holten, the Royal Opera’s director of opera, gives the composer the compliment of calling it “the first great comic opera of the 21st century”. Although he’s clearly giving himself and his company a pat on the back, too, successful comic operas are so rare these days that you have to take his suggestion seriously.
Director Ramin Gray has his cast emerge unexpectedly from the auditorium – they’re already sitting in modern dress (in costumes by Christina Cunningham) in the front row when the music begins. The black slatting of Ben Clarke’s tiered set has the orchestra and conductor on one side, with the rack of plates for the notorious plate-smashing passage for the goggle-protected percussionist on the opposite side. The orchestra’s involvement runs to chanting and foot-stamping, and having all that done in full view, seems to make full sense.
Musically, with Tim Murray conducting the Britten Sinfonia, the Royal Opera production comes across as very different to the concert performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
The manic moods are still there, but everything sounds that bit slower and smoother – it may be a matter of control rather than actual speed – and, from a seat in the fourth row, the words were often crystal clear, an extraordinary achievement given how antagonistic to verbal communication so many of the vocal lines would seem to be. There were reports of difficulties deciphering them from people who sat further back, for whom the super-title projections on the back wall were probably essential.
Barry’s approach to Wilde assumes that the words, characters and situations have an intrinsic strength sufficient to survive any kind of musical treatment they might be subjected to, prising the words apart with jagged violence, giving Gwendolen and Cecily megaphones to vent their fury at each other (to the accompaniment of the smashing plates), or turning Lady Bracknell into a bass.
Gray’s production seems to make the same assumptions about both Wilde and Barry. The opening offstage music, a clamorous pre-recorded piano version of Auld Lang Syne performed by Algernon, is now on his iPod. The manservant Lane (Simon Wilding) leaves the deposits of a very knowingly peeled cucumber on the ground for the disgruntled, pinstripe-suited Lady Bracknell to glower at as she is told about the unavailability of cucumbers at the market. The scenes of eating tend to turn into sessions of literal face-stuffing. And, at one point, everyone literally crawls up the set. The multiple layers of suspension of disbelief may be more than some people want to handle.
The strong casting and first-rate orchestral playing make for a musically rewarding evening, slightly tamed by comparison with the concert performances, but in a positive way – Barry’s extreme demands sound more fully mastered, while still remaining excitingly out of bounds.
Paul Curievici brought impressive body and depth of tone to his preppy-looking Jack. Benedict Wilson and Stephanie Marshall were commanding as Algernon and Gwendolen, and Alan Ewing rock solid as Lady Bracknell. Ida Falk Winland, a bespectacled Cecily in green hot pants, took the extreme vocal acrobatics in her stride, and Hillary Summers’s Miss Prism, wearing a fusty mauve outfit and trainers, was a stentorian delight. The production runs until Saturday.