Cork Midsummer is all fangs, food cans and forts

As the future of the festival hangs in the balance, an appetite for risk may be the best way forward

The thinner programme over the reduced time span of this year's Cork Midsummer Festival is a schedule for survival, not defeat. Surveying what she calls "the landscape of risk", festival manager Lorraine Maye is delighted by the support she has received from arts practitioners and sponsors in the effort to secure its future.

So long as that support continues, the association with Everyman Theatre and the Cork Operatic Society, which together offer an operatic spectacle with Der Vampyr, Cork’s Midsummer will command attention.

Here is another kind of risk: emerging from a theatre late on a warm, bright June evening is one thing; going into a theatre late on a warm bright June evening is something else again.

Surely many of the people who accept the challenge of co-directors Michael Barker-Caven and John O’Brien have little idea of what to expect from an obscure opera by a relatively neglected composer expressed in German gothic with a 12-member orchestra, which, with its first night taking place on the summer solstice, begins at such an unlikely hour that it doesn’t end until 12.30am.


The high production standards are matched by a shared commitment to innovation, which provides a musical experience sparkling with surprise. Much of this is probably down to unfamiliarity with Heinrich Marschner, an important composer in his day. Despite its stunning opportunities for show-off baritone, tenor and sopranos, the piece was almost forgotten, and its relevance now seems to hinge rather loosely on the contemporary allure of lonely bloodsuckers.

In the opera, the vampire Ruthven will only escape hell if he can seduce and kill three maidens within a day. Two fall willingly into his clutches, but the third has a lover determined to protect her. And so on. The two acts combine tragedy and farce and the score, as arranged by John O’Brien, is technically demanding, as even its most lyrical passages soar to outbursts of terror or despair. It has a horrible theme yet is packed with melody, as if the hearers’ abhorrence can be annulled by harmony.

Hrolfur Saemundsson, who sings of his bloodlust with almost orgasmic elation, makes Ruthven at least operatically credible; while Emma Nash as Janthe, his first victim, joins him in a captivating duet. Such thrilling contrasts are like the composer’s signature, perhaps at their best when Máire Flavin’s Emmy recounts the story of a lost girl, her phrasing heightening Marschner’s habit of relating pastoral imagery to the supernatural.

There is sumptuous singing from Kim Sheehan as Malwina and from Adrian Dwyer as Edgar, their performances radiant with musical intelligence. Like the other leads their work is perceptive and exciting.

That extra dimension applies to all aspects of the production, cast and chorus, while the orchestra – from cello to French horn, contrabassoon to timpani – frames the action and even prompts it at times. Michael Hurley’s lighting is effective, and, while Lisa Zagone’s production design strays sometimes (as with Edgar’s leather corset) it unites the gothic and dystopian with bravura.

The can can

“Bravura” is a word that could also be applied to the first presentation of the festival. The entry fee to A Dance Concerto, part of the Firkin Crane Presents programme, includes two cans of tinned food. Choreographer Laura Murphy and composer Irene Buckley create a sequence of continuous movement, hypnotic in its pace and in the visual effect of its ranks of black-clad dancers, all obedient to an orchestra of tins.

It is splendidly original; one doesn’t really expect food cans to be quite so active.

Circus inferno

Activity is also central to Inferno, a show by Passepartout Circus that is all about flames, including what can only be called a torch song. Patrons who came too late to nab the few chairs at the 17th-century Elizabeth Fort must have noticed cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right, and it couldn’t be ignored that the green matting spread over the ground where most of the audience had to sit was the kind you see at burials.

The Genet-inspired Playing the Maids – by Gaitkrash, the Llanarth Group and Theatre P’yut – which was at the Granary for a short run, should be invited back, and for a longer time, but obviously that may depend on what happens with the Cork Midsummer Festival from next year on.

In dealing with a historic debt and the 50 per cent reduction in its Arts Council grant (from €170,000 in 2013 to this year’s €85,000) the festival board decided on a difficult readjustment, which included parting with festival director Tom Creed.

As board member Aidan Stanley explains, “we did everything we could do in terms of keeping the festival alive without getting into danger of trading recklessly”.

Avoiding recklessness, however, need not mean avoiding risk, and so far, given that the programme has included architecture, cinema, Lords of Strut and Bénédicte Coleman’s installation at the National Sculpture Factory, risk seems its most marketable attribute.

Der Vampyr is at the Everyman Palace until Friday

Mary Leland

Mary Leland is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture