The timing could hardly have been better for an opera about bankers. AntiMidas, or Bankers in Hades, premiered in the week when Ireland was getting ready to exit the package of stringently supervised loans that, without a trace of irony and in spite of the draconian preconditions involved, is almost universally referred to as the bailout.
Maybe it should come as no surprise that AntiMidas, which ran for three nights at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College, is not actually by an Irish composer, but by a Greek, Evangelia Rigaki, who since 2010 has been assistant professor in composition at Trinity and is also the director of the college's music composition centre.
The anti-Midas created by Rigaki and her librettist, Scottish poet WN Herbert, is the richest man in the world. His fate is to turn from someone whose touch turns everything into gold into an unfortunate whose touch turns everything into shit, literally.
The plot is worked out in terms of Greek mythology. Anti-Midas offends Pluto, who calls on Cloacina to place a curse on the over-reaching zillionaire. The cast of four double as a Greek chorus and the media, amusingly presented as a wild line-up of talkshow TV pundits. In fact, it was the writing for those pundits and the instrumental explosions for percussion which made the greatest musical impression of the evening.
The production, directed, designed and lit by John Lloyd Davies, had all the signs of being put together on an austerity budget, but with lots of style and imagination.
The four multi-tasking singers – tenor Tyrone Landau in the title role, with mezzo soprano Tamsin Dally, soprano Catherine May and baritone Owen Gilhooly – performed with great spirit, although conductor Lindy Tennent-Brown didn't always manage to ensure that the words were audible enough over the five-player ensemble. The details of the goings-on of bankers are always, perhaps, going to be a slightly murky business.
Things going wrong
Ask anyone who has been active in the performing arts and they will be able to tell you about the weirdest ways in which things can go wrong. Conductors lose their batons, strings break, the reeds of wind instruments fail, there's a power cut (I once experienced one at an opera production sponsored by the ESB), sets break, a key player doesn't show up, a touring orchestra ends up in one city with its instruments in another, and singers who have lost their voices to infection walk through their roles on stage while someone else sings from the wings or the pit.
The Hugh Lane Gallery has this month added to the perversity of affliction that can be inflicted on performers. The first concert of the month, a programme of work by Frank Corcoran (Music for the Book of Kells and Trauerfelder) and Thom Hasenpflug given by the RIAM percussion ensemble under Richard O'Donnell, very nearly had to be cancelled, and in the event Hasenpflug's Bicksa had to be dropped.
The problem was volume. Percussion pieces are often very loud (the marking on the fortissimo opening page of Bicksa is "Burnin'!") and the level of sound in rehearsal set off the alarm system. The energy transmitted through the air caused an amount of movement in an extremely valuable artwork that was sufficient to trigger the alarm. Turning off the alarm was not an option, as it would have invalidated the gallery's insurance policy.
The two works by Frank Corcoran, who was on hand to respond to the dilemma in his unique, witty, wordy way, had to be toned down, so that Corcoran’s music, which often comes across as Xenakis meets Irish mythology, had an exceptionally mild manner on this particular occasion.
Low playback level
The ConTempo String Quartet, Galway's ensemble in residence – and also from next year RTÉ's quartet in residence in Cork – were at the Gallery on Sunday for a programme called America: Old & New, featuring Dvorak's American Quartet and Steve Reich's modern classic, Different Trains.
The Dvorak, full of freshness, but at times a bit rough at the edges for a standard repertoire piece from an established group, went without untoward incident. But the Reich, which features a tape part, had to be adjusted, again to avoid setting off the alarms.
Different Trains reflects on the trains of Reich's American childhood and the very different train journeys undertaken by Jews in wartime Europe. It blends the playing of the live quartet with pre-recorded strings, train sounds from the 1930s and 1940s and the voices of his governess, a retired Pullman porter and Holocaust survivors.
On Sunday, the playback level of the tape had to be kept so low that it came across only as a background – mostly indistinct and indecipherable from where I was sitting – and the live quartet was at all times dominant. The composer has a stipulation in the printed score that "there should be no ambiguity as to what is pre-recorded and what is live" (his emphasis). I doubt however that he ever imagined this requirement would be met in the way it was on Sunday.
I tried to listen to the performance by imagining I was in the middle of the group of live performers, as a way of explaining the strangeness of the balances I was experiencing. As a one-off, it was a fascinating exercise.
Shakespeare and music
Sunday afternoon brought a real rarity, a partnership between the National Theatre and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which saw the orchestra on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, with Alyson Cummins's set for James Plunkett's The Risen People atmospherically behind them.
The project was a programme of Shakespeare and music, with Gavin Maloney conducting music by Debussy, Berlioz, Prokofiev, Sibelius and Mendelssohn, interspersed with readings by Derbhle Crotty, Nick Dunning, Peter Gaynor and Natalie Radmall-Quirke.
The orchestral sound was clear but dry, the acoustic providing moments of a strangely artificial-sounding overhang, the kind of effect you would normally only associate with amplification. The sonic picture was also naked and vivid, with no way for even the tiniest of flaws in solo contributions to get brushed over, as happens in venues with a warmer acoustic.
Think of the recordings Toscanini made in NBC’s Studio 8-H and you’ll be along the right lines. Sadly, on this occasion, Maloney’s conducting had a matter-of-fact bluntness that didn’t communicate much of the atmosphere or magic in the music that was on offer.