The Magic Flute in a circus makes for a frustrating experience in Lismore

The looseness of the ensemble and problems with co-ordination proved largely insurmountable

Owen Gilhooly (Papageno) and Chloe Morgan (Papagena) in The Magic Flute

Owen Gilhooly (Papageno) and Chloe Morgan (Papagena) in The Magic Flute


Since its inception in 2010, the Lismore Music Festival has performed in the stable yard of Lismore Castle. A three-sided marquee has covered the audience, and the singers have worked at the open end, under the sky. In the past, unpredictable weather has wreaked havoc in any number of ways. So it was ironic on Saturday when the festival performed for the first time in an entirely enclosed space that the sun should have shone.

The festival didn’t actually move indoors, but into a circus tent, courtesy of Fossett’s Circus. The opera was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by Dieter Kaegi, and with costume designs by Slawek Narwid and Marion, Angela and Herta Fossett. Not only did this Magic Flute take place in a circus tent, but the production was also set in a circus.

This gave us a Papageno (Owen Gilhooly) done up as a green-wigged clown; a Queen of the Night (Kim Sheehan) who spent a lot of time suspended on a trapeze; Sarastro (Valerian Ruminski) as a red-suited ringmaster, and the Three Ladies (Emer Barry, Sandra Oman and Deirdre Masterson) and Pamina (Ioana Pipelea) dressed in skin-hugging outfits.

The voices came across with much greater presence than in the stable yard, although not very many of the words came across clearly. With the action mostly confined to the ring, and the eight-player ensemble conducted by Marco Zambelli on the back perimeter of the tent, the problems of co-ordination proved largely insuperable. Zambelli’s conducting was hardly what you would call spirited, and the singers tended to lag behind, as if they were following rather than in step with the musicians. Singers that lag behind the beat in Mozart operas can be heard in opera houses, too. But the looseness of the ensemble in this Magic Flute was probably the worst I have encountered.

Judging by the applause, the audience favourite among the singers was Kim Sheehan, although the pleasure to be had from her fiery contributions was tempered for me by vagaries of intonation. Ioana Pipelea was less outgoing, but surer and truer, befitting the character of Pamina. Lawrence Thackeray as her love interest, Tamino, sang with consistent and often raw force, as if he felt he needed to be heard on the far bank of the Blackwater, and the pressure exerted a toll on tone and pitch. Valerian Ruminski was sonorous, stately and authoritative, and Owen Gilhooly (with a swanee whistle rather than pipes) mucked in energetically as a clown. The members of the Piccolo Lasso Choir were on top form in a welcome multiplication of the Three Boys.

There were advantages to the move into a tent. I was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which listeners had a better experience of the voices. And the singers and musicians were protected from anything the weather might deliver. But the problems of ensemble made for an ultimately frustrating experience.

Celine Byrne shines

Vier letzte Lieder

Byrne is one of those performers who makes the business of singing seem easy. She just does it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to stand between a large orchestra and an audience of more than 1,000 and make yourself easily heard.

She did it again on Friday, with a tone that was free and rich. If that was all there were to the last songs that Strauss completed, the performance would have been a complete success. What was missing on this occasion, however, was the kind of nuance that is needed to penetrate deeply into the end-of-life reflections of Strauss’s last compositions. Yet, with good support from the NSO under Alan Buribayev, it was as beautiful a performance as I’ve heard from an Irish singer.

The evening opened and ended with music from two opposing pillars of the 19th century, Wagner (his Tannhäuser Overture) and Brahms (his Second Symphony). Buribayev’s approach to both was sure and steady, the long, winding melodies of the Wagner proceeding with stately patience, its fireworks kept on a careful rein.

The opening of the symphony was more than a little disconcerting, moving slowly enough that it hardly sounded like a fast movement of any description – Brahms marked it Allegro non troppo. The music was allowed to heat up later, but the movement never quite recovered fully from the sluggish start. Inevitably, then, the actual slow movement seemed insufficiently contrasted to what had gone before. The gently lilting third movement was nicely done, and the finale had real sparkle. A hot-and-cold performance.

Preview of RTÉ’s next season

LeonoreEin Heldenleben

Strauss will be getting royal treatment from Buribayev during the season, which will include Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung, the Alpine Symphony, and the closing trio of Der Rosenkavalier (with the mouth-watering line-up of Celine Byrne, Ailish Tynan and Tara Erraught). Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis, who will become assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic in September, will make a welcome return in a programme of Borodin (Polovtsian Dances), Prokofiev (the First Piano Concerto with fellow Belfast man Michael McHale) and Shostakovich (Fifth Symphony).

Another welcome return is by violinist Julian Rachlin, who will direct Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto and conduct works by Glinka (the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture) and Tchaikovsky (the Fourth Symphony). His last appearance with the NSO was a gem of an event.

Living composers featured within the subscription series are Linda Buckley, Christian Lindberg, Elaine Agnew, Huw Watkins, Ney Rosauro, Frank Corcoran, and Gerry Murphy. The free lunchtime Horizons concerts will feature music by David Bremner, Gráinne Mulvey, Nicola LeFanu, Joseph Davis, David Coonan, Philip Hammond, John Buckley and Jerome de Bromhead. Details can be found on

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