Vagabones review: Irish witchcraft meets Irish opera

Raymond Deane’s Vagabones dramatises one of the few witch trials to have ever taken place in Ireland


Civic Theatre, Tallaght
Witches are nothing new in opera. But a witch in an opera set in Ireland by an Irish composer? That's certainly something different. After two performances at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, Opera Collective Ireland is taking Raymond Deane's new Vagabones on tour in a production directed by Ben Barnes, designed by Monica Frawley, and with Crash Ensemble conducted by Sinead Hayes.

Renate Debrun’s libretto is based on Emma Donoghue’s 1997 play Trespasses, and the central character is Florence Newton, who in 1661 was tried for witchcraft in Youghal, where the opera will be staged on Thursday.

St John D Seymour pointed out in his 1913 book, Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, that anyone could be dragged into a witch epidemic: “noblemen, scholars, monks, nuns, titled ladies, bishops, clergy – none were immune from accusation and condemnation”.

He also identified the 17th century as “the period par excellence of witchcraft, demonology, and the supernatural in Ireland” and the trial of Florence Newton as “the most remarkable witch case of that time”.


The story of the opera includes epileptic fits (some of them allegedly caused by a kiss between women), a faith-healer, a false identity (Florence is actually Fionnuala, the widow of an Irish vagabond, not of a Protestant English soldier), false witness, torture, an evil eye, and the threat of the “water experiment”, in which drowning proves innocence and floating proves guilt. Seymour explained the thinking: “water, as being the element in Baptism, refuses to receive such a sinner in its bosom.”

Deane’s musical approach makes for an opera that is very wordy. Hayes’s conducting does not often find viable balances between instruments and voices, and a lot of text in the performance I attended on Saturday remained indecipherable. The production plays without any subtitles, though scene changes are flagged in descriptions projected on the back wall of the oppressively dark unit set.

The oppressive weight of power — men over women, officialdom over ordinary people — is what the opera most successfully conveys. And although it lifts itself onto a more engaging plane when torture and trial light a musical fuse, this does not fully balance out the prevailing lack of tension and drama.

The singers give it their all, with impressive performances from mezzo-soprano Carolyn Holt as Florence; baritone Rory Musgrave as the Mayor of Youghal; Ross Scanlon as the twisted bailiff, John Pyne; soprano Sarah Power as the Pyne-inspired accuser and epileptic, Mary Longdon; bass-baritone Rory Dunne as the faith-healer and torturer, Valentine Greatrakes; and soprano Kelli-Ann Masterson as Florence's cell-mate, Dónal O'Dare.

Vagabones is on tour until Friday, September 13th