Adventure reborn at festival's heart


OPERA AUDIENCES are often viewed as conservative, while opera directors are definitely not. Consider the last two Irish productions of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Clowns), a veristic tale of jealousy within a group of travelling players in the 1860s, which was premièred in 1892.

Back in 1998, a production directed by Opera Ireland’s artistic director, Dieter Kaegi, had the famous aria Vesti la giubba sung in the front seat of a Fiat 500. In 2004 a piano-accompanied Wexford Festival Opera Scenes production, directed by Jacopo Spirei, opened by disgorging the Memphis Clowns, complete with Elvis wannabee, from the back of a smoke-belching lorry.

A new Pagliacci in Cork, co-directed by John O’Brien (who’s also the music director) and Michael Barker-Caven, goes a stage further, and effectively aims to turn the whole work inside out. The audience turning up at the Everyman Palace Theatre on Friday was greeted, outside the venue and within, by a throng of circus-style attractions, a bearded lady, a pair of Siamese twins (“Rosa Maria, the two-headed nightingale,” says a poster), a neatly-suited escapologist, a fortune teller and marauding stilt-walkers.

Designer Lisa Zagone’s set for Pagliacci is mostly in the auditorium rather than on the stage, and the large, lusty-voiced chorus literally streams around the audience, creating the sort of immersive sonic effect of a cinema surround-sound setup with a zillion loudspeakers.

It doesn’t stop there. O’Brien arranged the orchestral part of the prologue and Act I for an ensemble of ten players who’ve learnt their parts by heart so that they can move freely, following the action wherever it goes, and allowing particular instruments and singers to be placed together at key moments. O’Brien shifts from ensemble to orchestra for the play within a play of Act II, with the larger number of musicians (still reduced from Leoncavallo’s original) seated in rows on a faux-balcony on the actual stage. Does it all sound a bit far-fetched? Yes, it does. But it also worked a treat as a festive night out that was full of surprises. Chutzpah is one thing this production was not short of.

And the singing? Tenor Ronald Samm’s Canio shared the gutsiness of the evening as a whole and was never shy on effort, with sometimes thrilling and sometimes less than thrilling results. Soprano Cara O’Sullivan’s Nedda was more muted, as if she was at times taking her character’s surliness too far, while baritone Brendan Collins’s Tonio was altogether more affecting.

The production as a whole was very much a community event, presented by Everyman and Cork Operatic Society in association with Cork Midsummer Festival, Barabbas and Cork Circus. It was the first show funded by the Arts Council’s new opera production award to reach performance, and it certainly brought a real sense of novelty and adventure to the heart of the operatic repertoire.

The Midsummer Festival also included a performance of Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic at City Hall, preceded by a lunchtime interview of the composer by Bernard Clarke. Bryars’s Titanic is what you might call conceptual music. It’s based on the idea that a group of musicians on the stricken ship decided to play on, even though they knew the vessel was doomed, and that they somehow managed to keep playing a hymn as they were engulfed by the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

The piece lives through the combination of documentary material and the ghostly, blurry presentation of the hymn, as if the sound were somehow being generated and heard underwater.

The Gavin Bryars Ensemble’s current version of the work involves a remarkable, scene-setting prelude on turntables by Philip Jeck, with video projections designed by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder presenting a seamless, split-screen, mirrored image, that creates a consistent ship-like symmetry as well as any number of prow-like effects.

So far, so good. But the 75-minute duration of the Cork performance was way too much for the musical material involved, in spite of its poignancy. Bryars’s sees his Titanic, and also his Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet as works that adapt to their circumstances. They can be presented, as they first became known, on a single side of an LP, or filling up a CD or an evening concert, or just as part of a longer programme. This was my first encounter of Titanic as a standalone concert, where, ultimately, the music came to function as a meandering soundtrack to the video.

THE PUBLICITYcouldn’t have been plainer for pianist Ivan Ilic’s lunchtime recital at the NCH John Field Room on Friday. He was to play works by Erik Satie, “including three Gymnopédies (1888), and six Gnossiennes (1889-1897)”.

In the event, he did anything but. He began with Brahms’s arrangement for the left hand of Bach’s great D minor Chaconne for solo violin, followed with a single Gnossienne and Gymnopédie interlaced with the two slow movements of Morton Feldman’s Last Pieces, and ended with a handful of Godowsky’s Studies after Chopin’s Studies, his selection concentrating on ones for the left hand only.

Ilic is clearly a character of some charisma. He offered no printed programme, but instead he introduced the music with a lively intelligence and more than a dash of wit. He changed his advertised programme, he explained, because he had discovered Feldman, and the discovery had changed the way he thought about music. He launched into a story about two cats to illustrate how the conjunction of particular pieces of music can appear to change their nature. (In the cat story, the passive, slightly misanthropic cat changed character – and for the better – after his dominant companion died.)

Ilic has been a regular visitor to Ireland for a number of years now, but Friday was the first time I actually got to hear him perform. What was most striking about his playing was its sense of focus. He knows what he wants, and how to get it. He played both the Brahms arrangement of Bach and the Godowsky studies with an unusual rigour, as if keeping a tight rein on tempo was his number-one priority.

The Bach sounded rigid, and the romantic colouring that Godowsky adds to Chopin was seriously downplayed – even when he eliminates the right hand, Godowsky modernises the harmonies by squeezing ideas of his own into the gaps left by Chopin. The Feldman sounded matter of fact, too regular, as if Ilic were still afraid to take the composer fully at his word when he wrote the marking, “Slow. Soft. Durations are free”.

The intelligent clarity of the musical thinking was impressive. But at the same time the clarity seemed to corral the actual music into narrow vistas. And the main offering that disappeared? I couldn’t help wondering if anyone who came expecting nine pieces by Satie dared demand their money back because they were only offered two.

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