Der Vampyr’s use of space has more bite than Mahagonny’s

Set designers have a crucial influence over the musical experience of an opera – here’s the evidence

June was an interesting month for opera. Two works that were once the preserve of the Wexford Festival came to Dublin and Cork.

Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, seen at Wexford in 1985, was presented by Rough Magic and Opera Theatre Company at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin; and Marschner's Der Vampyr (Wexford 1992) by Everyman and the Cork Operatic Society in Cork.

The two productions both adopted unusual approaches to the fitting of opera in a theatre. There was a lot of ballyhoo surrounding Mahagonny. "The theatre will be reimagined and transformed by Ireland's leading architects Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey to create a totally immersive experience," was the promise. But no one I've spoken to seemed to have enjoyed the work any more than they would have if the whole show had taken place in the normal way, with set and singers onstage, orchestra in a pit, and audience in the auditorium.

It's often forgotten how much a set designer can contribute to the musical experience of an opera. An open stage with little on it allows the sound of the singers' voices to disperse in all directions. A solid box of a set will reflect and reinforce the sound that reaches the audience. Mahagonny didn't have a set as such, because part of the audience was on the stage itself, and the singers needed to be seen and heard by them as well as by everyone who was seated in the auditorium.


From my seat in the circle, I imagined that the closeness of the singers might have made for a better experience for the onstage audience. But everyone I have spoken to who sat onstage made it clear that this was not the case. The inaudibility of the voices and words is the major issue people have complained about. That could have been ameliorated by singing the work in German and providing surtitles. But, then, one of Opera Theatre Company’s core values is the presentation of opera in English.

Der Vampyr was done in the original German, which led to an amount of rather mangled spoken dialogue. But the idea of having the work flow off the stage into the auditorium was carried out with an aplomb that Mahagonny got nowhere near.

The stage was fuller than you might imagine, because the 12 players of the wind-rich ensemble, wearing costumes and make-up, played everything from memory, and roved freely as part of the action. This time around, it was the Marschner that was genuinely immersive.

Wexford goes for the unknown

It would take a brave person to predict any future productions in Dublin or Cork for the repertoire at this year’s Wexford Festival Opera, which will run from October 22nd to November 2nd. It’s one of those Wexford years with operas by composers that most of the audience are unlikely to have heard before.

Antoine Mariotte's Salomé was first seen in Lyon in 1908, and, although Strauss's Salome made it to the stage a couple of years earlier, Mariotte appears to have written his opera first.

Antonio Cagnoni's comic Don Bucefalo, first heard in Milan in 1847, was successful enough in the composer's lifetime to have had performances in Lisbon, Warsaw, Buenos Aires, Malta, Barcelona and Constantinople.

The line-up is completed by American composer Kevin Puts's first opera, Silent Night, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. The work was inspired by Christian Carion's 2005 film Joyeux Noël about the Christmas truce in the first World War. There will be free morning screenings of the film on the performance days of the opera.

Wexford Opera House is also the venue on September 6th for the opening performance by the newly formed Irish Youth Opera. The company's debut tour of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, directed by Michael Barker-Caven – who was part of the team that delivered Der Vampyr – will also be seen in the Everyman Palace Theatre; O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin; and An Táin Theatre in Dundalk. Irish Youth Opera aims to provide a platform for young professional singers, and the cast of Lucretia includes Ross Scanlon, Jennifer Davis, Christopher Cull, Rory Musgrave, Gyula Nagy, Carolyn Dobbin, Raphaela Mangan and Emma Nash.

West Cork holds its tune

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which ended on Saturday, has for a number of years been doing rather more than putting on concerts and organising masterclasses for ensembles and composers. It has also become a meeting place and a market place for instrument makers. This year's presentations included a talk by Robert Pierce and Conor Russell – Violin-Making and Music in Late Georgian Dublin – and a masterclass on how to select an instrument.

The niceties of instruments is a fraught area. I once got an excited phone call from someone who had spotted what he thought was a nice violin in a market. He was over the moon, because there was a label inside bearing the word Stradivarius, and he had paid only a pittance for the instrument. I had the unenviable task of asking the series of questions that would reveal that what he had bought was a cheap, factory-made box. And, it turned out that while he had spotted the Stradivarius label, he had missed the Made in China stamp it also carried.

The history of the Dublin instruments is fascinating but full of unknowns, and the presentation was interesting not just for the light it shone on Dublin’s past, but also for what it told us about instrument- making and the trade in instruments in general.

Unlike pianos, which wear out and eventually get discarded, the best string instruments can mature and develop over centuries. There was much discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the old versus the new. The voices from the floor favoured the new, and I’m sure affordability played an important part in that. But there is also the fact that if you commission a new instrument it can be made with your specific character and needs in mind. As one of the makers pointed out, you only have to listen to the concerts in Bantry to know how very different the sound ideals of any two violinists or cellists can actually be.

One of the most fascinating concerts Bantry has ever put on took place on Thursday. It featured both violin and viola, but just one person to play them. Lawrence Power switched roles in a concert that offered all three of Brahms's violin sonatas and his two viola sonatas.

Power is, of course, a viola player, and he moved his left hand on the violin as if it were a viola, sliding between certain notes in a way I could never imagine a violinist doing. I hadn't anticipated how unique the experience would be. It was as fascinating as it would be to watch the ambidextrous Rafael Nadal play a whole match with his right hand rather than his left.