Irish Times writers review Doubt at the Abbey Theatre, Don Gregorio at the Wexford Festival Opera, Tim O'Brien and Arty McGlynn at the Temple Bar Music Centre and Guy Bovet (organ) at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
"In a good play," pronounced the 19th-century playwright Friedrich Hebbel, "everyone is right." John Patrick Shanley isn't so certain. In Doubt, the American writer's Broadway-conquering, Pulitzer-winning drama of 2004, now receiving its Irish premiere, everyone certainly claims to be right, but convictions gradually become corroded and unstable.
Set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 - the year after the Kennedy assassination - Doubt depicts an uncertain country, robbed of innocence and yearning for spiritual comfort. Sister Aloysius (Bríd Brennan), the school's Draconian principal, sees the world in stark terms, a place where evil prowls the shadows, and corruption resides in everything from the ballpoint pen to the paganistic verses of Frosty the Snowman.
Innocence, she tells the wide-eyed naïf Sister James (Gemma Reeves), is a form of laziness. "The heart is warm," Aloysius instructs, "but your wits must be cold." It is this unwavering certainty that leads her into pitched battle with the charismatic Father Flynn (Aidan Kelly), when the popular priest and Vatican II reformer is suspected of abusing a young black student.
Shanley's play is immediately absorbing, not because he is interested in plumbing the concealed abuses within a faith (he isn't), but rather because he depicts an abuse of faith. Performed in an age of scepticism, Shanley's drama is deliberately short with proof: the more that is revealed in the battle - the boy's homosexuality, Father Flynn's troubled history, the political hierarchy of the church - the less we seem to know.
Gerard Stembridge's production also seems to waver in its conviction.
Demonstrating little discomfort in the teasing ambiguities of the dialogue (which feels more like an interrogation), his stage is dominated by superfluous embellishments. From Alan Farquarson's smothering, monumental set, to a sequence in which a tree thrashes about during a storm, it's as though the production is anxious to shore up the elusive text with extraneous corroborating evidence.
Sadly, the imposing scale also swallows up the cast. Brennan, in particular, essaying her role with a rather too-quiet intensity, is often hard to hear, the steely resolve of her character becoming diffuse in the space.
Reeves fares better, beautifully registering a hushed tragedy as Sister James's enthusiasm and idealism are steadily quashed, while Starla Benford, as the boy's mother, introduces a late, uneasy theme of moral compromise as a black woman in impossible circumstances. Kelly excels as a charming, wily manipulator, angling his glib sermons to bolster his defence. "The truth makes for a bad sermon," he confesses. "It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion."
The same could be said about Doubt, which, even in an uncertain production, makes for a gripping play nonetheless, one that dares to stoke scepticism among its audience as a prerogative of vigilance - and everyone's right.
Until Nov 25
Wexford Festival Opera
A tall crane looks down over the building site that once housed Wexford's Theatre Royal. And while the new theatre is being built, the Wexford Festival is relocating, this year to the Dún Mhuire theatre, next year, in June, to Johnstown Castle.
Dún Mhuire has been transformed for the occasion by designer Joe Vanek. The rather claustrophobic seating under the balcony has been closed off. Raked seats now rise from the floor to the balcony, and, with no pit available, the orchestra plays on the floor in front of the stage. Even with a brightened-up foyer and extra bar space, the venue remains something of a mish-mash, but a perfectly viable one. When the lights are down the focus is on the stage and the still somewhat tatty surroundings fade.
The first of this year's two operas opened on Wednesday, and marks a revisiting, unusual for Wexford, of a work first staged there in 1973. But it's not an exact revisiting. 1973 saw a production of Donizetti's L'ajo nell'imbarazzo, this year is bringing a production of Don Gregorio, a revised version of the same work, which Donizetti prepared for Naples in 1826, two years after its Roman premiere.
Unusually in this comic opera about protective parental restrictions, it's his two sons, Enrico and Pippetto, that the conservative Don Giulio aspires to keep away from the outside world, and in particular the attractions of the fairer sex. Without his knowledge, his youngest son has fallen for an older maid, and his elder son is in fact married and already a father.
Donizetti had a sharp way with this kind of knowing comedy, and director Roberto Recchia has devised a responsive, fast-paced production that updates the work by a century and is unfailingly inventive in adding to the joke quotient. Ferdia Murphy's costumes are as colourful as his set is classically reserved, but behind the gray facade it's equipped with amusingly contrived drawers (yielding a bed and a wardrobe) and alcoved statuary which comes to life and enters the action.
The star of the show is the Don Gregorio of Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna, a man who goes, sometimes manically, through many transformations yet retains a sense of musical and vocal poise whatever demands are made on him.
Italian bass-baritone Bruno Taddia's Don Giulio is suitably firm-spined, though even he gets dragged into the second act's frenzy of cross-dressing. His two tenor sons, Spaniard Vicenc Esteve as Pippetto and Italian Danilo Formaggia as Enrico, are nicely contrasted, the first all coltish energy, the second more careful and circumspect, and, though vocally agile, not always entirely pleasant in tone.
Georgian soprano Elizaveta Martirosyan is a feisty presence as Enrico's wife, Gilda, and she makes the most of her opportunities for vocal fireworks. Italian mezzo Sabina Willeit's maid, Leonarda, oils some of the wheels of the plot with relish.
The Irish-sourced Orchestra of the Wexford Festival Opera plays with sharpness and style under Michele Mariotti. His pacing in this work, full of effects that Donizetti essayed more successfully elsewhere, keeps things moving nicely.
Tim O'Brien and Arty McGlynn
Temple Bar Music Centre
He's a charismatic West Virginian polymath who devours intricate chord progressions before breakfast. Tim O'Brien's brand of bluegrass is one part tradition, one part current affairs and two parts hewn of his own labyrinthine musings on life, the universe and everything.
With the musical equivalent of Mount Rushmore, Arty McGlynn offering agile guitar accompaniment (and tossing a remarkable number of deadpan jokes into the mix - a revelation to those who viewed him as a dour northerner), Tim O'Brien hurtled with lightning speed through his repertoire, mostly drawn from his two recently-released albums, Fiddler's Green and Cornbread Nation.
O'Brien's opening salvo of Boat Up The River set the bar high, his intricate mandolin arrangements shrouded in minuscule finger movements that belied a lifetime of picking - and a spectacular facility for miniature musical portraiture. So much of what O'Brien does is delivered in a throwaway manner and yet his high lonesome vocals and the (almost) jazz-inflected hairpin bends he favours on both mandolin and fiddle are the stuff of pure genius.
His bluegrass roots shimmer in the playfulness of Let's Go Huntin, buoyed by McGlynn's swaggering guitar. Yet O'Brien is at his best when he crosses borders and cockily defies passport control with such hybrid gems as The Crossing, California Blues and Your Beauty Has Conquered Me - where country, blues and bluegrass all coalesce into that elusive thing called "folk music" - that's music by, of and about folk.
With a star-studded audience hanging on his every note, O'Brien resisted the temptation to haul 'em all on stage - a mercy for us punters who relished every lickity spit tune and every spit-polished song for what it was: a magical moment in time when two musicians delved deep beneath the skin of the music - and unearthed gem after sparkling gem.
Guy Bovet (organ)
St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin
Bach/Liszt - Introduction and Fugue from Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. Liszt - Orpheus. Guy Bovet - Ricercare. Toccata planyavska. Alain - Le Jardin Suspendu. Fantasies I and II. Ravel/Bovet - Ma Mère l'Oye
In assembling this programme, Guy Bovet showed judgment that was rare and apt. It was apt because this was one of the occasional George Hewson Memorial Recitals, and in framing the recital with transcriptions Bovet paid tribute to Hewson's (1881-1972) legendary skill at playing orchestral music on this very organ. It was rare because he made a gem of a recital with an unusual programme, even though most of the music was not fast, loud, or obviously virtuosic.
Bovet's printed notes spoke for themselves: "After a beginning under the auspices of Johann Sebastian [ one of Liszt's less well-known transcriptions], the programme is made of pieces having to do with enchantment, magics and exoticism." Characterful English, characterful music, and characterful playing. It is much easier to promise such loftiness than to deliver it.
Liszt's transcription of his symphonic poem Orpheus can fall flat. But thanks both to the impeccable control of slow tempi that marked the recital and to vivid registration, it was magical. Two pieces by Bovet were fascinating, especially Toccata planyavska, an astonishing, whacky blend between boogie-woogie and high-art techniques. Probably the best-known original organ work was Alain's Le jardin suspendu, which again showed Bovet's ability to create a spell in a slow tempo. The best-known composition came in an unfamiliar transcription. Bovet's transcription of Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye is remarkably effective at transferring to the organ the enchanted world of the original for piano duet.
It takes something special to hold an audience for 90 minutes when they have nothing to look at, and without socking them in the ears at least once. As an all-round artist, this Guy is special.