Just now, milestones in Irish opera are arriving in bunches like those proverbial buses. The Irish premiere of Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest and Wexford Festival Opera's annual unearthing of forgotten treasures are both due next month, while the past week has seen operatic premieres in Dublin by Raymond Deane and, of all people, Antonin Dvorak.
For Deane it was the world premiere – in concert performance – of his The Alma Fetish with Wide Open Opera at the National Concert Hall. One night later at the Gaiety Theatre, Lyric Opera Productions gave the Dublin premiere of Dvorak's Rusalka. This was six years after its Irish premiere at Wexford and 112 years after it first opened in Prague in 1901.
It was an extraordinary pairing of operas for anyone who attended both, not because of the immense differences of sound, style, mood and complexity between them, but – quite unexpectedly – because of their striking similarity. Both works expose aspects of human longing and frailty.
Deane's love doll
Deane and librettist Gavin Kostick approach these through the bizarre-but-true, stranger-than-fiction story of painter Oskar Kokoschka, while Dvorak accesses them via the collective unconsciousness of a fairy tale. Following the break-up of his affair with the titular Alma Mahler (the widow of composer Gustav), the obsessive Kokoschka is despondent until he commissions a life-sized, anatomically accurate replica of his former lover from a renowned doll-maker.
Deane (who told me nearly 20 years ago that Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann was among his favourite operas because of the doll, Olympia) has produced a lavish, emotionally loaded score in which he revels like a boy in a toy shop in the great cross-wash of late romantic orchestral density and expressionist new beginnings that characterised music in Vienna in the first 20 years of the 20th century.
The period also features an age of decadence, and embraces the ages of existentialism and of Freud, all of which find voice in the tension and pressing intensity of Deane’s music.
At the same time, the opera's central conceit even recalls the troubling relationship between the unhinged Tom Hanks character and the volleyball Wilson in desert-island drama Cast Away (2000).
Deane relieves the tension at judiciously measured intervals over the opera’s two one-hour acts. The chorus, for example, creates a pause for the cast by reflecting on the action in passages featuring both richly chordal writing and the intricacies of counterpoint. Relief also arrives in the tumultuous climax of the first World War battle scene in which Kokoschka is injured, and in the delicious juxtaposition of his existential ruminations with the maid’s banal but immediate concerns about tea.
Kokoschka’s eventual, furious destruction of the doll is catastrophic in impact. The opera ends quietly when, 20 years later, Kokoschka and Alma reminisce briefly during a chance meeting in Vienna. Then they go their separate ways.
Although it is a terrible pity that this Irish recession-era opera could not receive a full production for its premiere, this is not without positive – if unexpected – side effects.
The visual can often over-ride the other senses – even hearing – in the customary circus of operatic staging. Here, the absence of action focuses nearly all the attention on Deane’s remarkable score. The performance is not entirely without visuals – Pauline Bewick’s design sketches are projected on to a screen above the stage, passing in a sufficiently slow sequence to add context without creating distraction.
There is fine, well-characterised singing from the three leads – Majella Cullagh in the comparatively small part for the eponymous Alma, Leigh Melrose in a highly complex portrayal of Kokoschka, and Daire Halpin often stealing scenes in Deane's high-wire writing for the maid, Hulda.
Conductor Fergus Sheil – valorous if ultimately unequal to the unfair challenge of balancing voices against a massive orchestral score intended for a pit and not the stage – draws out Deane's rich Viennese flavours and references in a full-bodied performance from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
A triumphant production
After years of exercising similar valour at the NCH, Lyric Opera director Vivian Coates was meanwhile enjoying only his second outing at the Gaiety Theatre, safely installing his orchestra – the Wexford Festival Orchestra, under David T Heusel, in another new departure – below stage in the pit for the 112-year-delayed Dublin premiere of Dvorak's masterpiece Rusalka.
The story is very similar to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, with the water nymph Rusalka sacrificing her voice – rather than her dignity, like Kokoschka – in order to experience human love.
This is a triumphant production, especially given the financial constraints facing Coates. The shrewd use of space, lighting and colour by his design team allows the sad story to tell itself via Dvorak’s bitter-sweet romantic score.
All four leads are strong: Natasha Jouhl depicts innocence and longing in the title role; bass Richard Vodnik is a mix of caring and foreboding as her father; and American tenor Jeff Gwaltney never strays into camp as the prince and love interest. Imelda Drumm – costumed beyond recognition – brings a welcome hint of melodrama as the forest witch, Jezibaba.
The next "bus" for which Irish opera- goers still stand waiting in the cold is Berg's Wozzeck; its long-overdue Irish premiere by Opera Theatre Company was announced for 2013 and then dropped. This was before OTC's new bus driver, Fergus Sheil, climbed into his seat.