Reviews today include the International Dance Festival: vsprs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Faust at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin and Emm Gryner at Whelan's, Dublin
International Dance Festival: vsprs
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
This year's International Dance Festival Ireland kicked off ambitiously with the first performance of Belgium's Les Ballets C de la B. A risky, statement-making first show, its excellence nonetheless raises the bar for the acts to come.
Conceived by renegade choreographer Alain Platel as an artistic response to a seminal experience of listening to Monteverdi's Vespers as an adolescent, the piece creates a kind of 21st-century vision of Hieronymus Bosch across a set littered with white rags, which cover a pair of scaffolding mountains on which the dancers often expertly climb and slide. The contorted agony of the condemned, and the crude, witty creatures in this painter's work, have first cousins in Platel's delirious creation.
The exceptionally gifted and supple dancers were not only able to flick themselves spasmodically into a chorus of pandemonium, but could also manipulate their bodies into an illusion of physical deformity even reminiscent of the damage wreaked by thalidomide.
Uncomfortably close pairings nevertheless expressed a toddler's unconcern with the physical and emotional feelings of others; even working together as a troupe, the dancers often suggested that deeply sunken sense of self in madness that excludes true contact with the outer world and its creatures.
They shuddered and jerked as though possessed, every duet and group action equally a solo in which the dancers communed and battled inner demons.
Despite the desolate isolation of insanity and torment in the frenetic action, twitching and shuddering, the piece itself retained a clinical indifference, even a lightness in its touch. One of the dancers announced dispassionately through the thicket of madly pulsing activity: "I wrote a poem about poo. I make you every day."
Yet the work's cry for human communion and salvation often sought expression in different ways, such as when another dancer pawed desperately at the angelically detached soprano, whispering St Francis's prayer: "Lord, let me be an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love." As the dancers wrung themselves toward the conclusion, several of them attempted pathetically to find contact with and reanimate the superbly lifeless bodies of the others draped across the stage like the rags.
Music director Fabrizio Cassol's score was superlative and implemented with discernment. It would be worth experiencing this extraordinary piece even for this alone.
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
Back in the 1940s, when Opera Ireland was still the Dublin Grand Opera Society, Verdi's Il trovatore was the only work to get more DGOS productions than Gounod's Faust. Trovatore clocked up nine in nine years and Faust, with eight, shared its second place in the popularity stakes with Puccini's Madama Butterfly.
Faust has declined greatly in popularity since then, and the current production, directed by Dieter Kaegi with designs by Stefanie Pasterkamp, is only the fourth since 1976. The new Faust, a co-production with Theater Lübeck, relocates the work to a run-down public waiting room, with peeling plaster on the walls, desultory figures seated on backless benches, and elderly homeless males (Faust himself among them) taking refuge from the world outside.
The title role is split between two tenors, Joe Turpin for the old man, Anthony Kearns for the satanically rejuvenated young figure. The old Faust shadows his younger self, and the object of his affections, Marguerite, also gets a bi-location scene. The chorus emulates what's clearly intended to be Weimar Republic decadence (there's a dominatrix with her subject on a chain, much exposure of flesh, and sexual to-ing and fro-ing), and appears as everyday folk and modern, club-wielding thugs. Marthe is the toilet attendant, and exits loo-ward with Méphistophélès for a bit of hanky-panky. You get the picture.
The greatest interest in this Faust is actually what goes on in the pit. Bruno Ferrandis takes Gounod's music seriously on its own terms, shapes it with sensitive care, makes its colours glow, handles its climaxes and special moments effectively, and yields judiciously but not cloyingly to its sentimentality.
The RTÉ Concert Orchestra is only momentarily (in some off-colour wind solos) recognisable as the band that played so roughly in Cenerentola. The singing of the chorus, however, continues to show the kind of weaknesses of intonation and ensemble that Opera Ireland long ago moved to make a thing of the past. The best singing on stage comes from the Croatian mezzo soprano Renata Pokupic in the trousers role of Siébel. Her tone is straight and true, her boyish antics perfectly apt, and whenever she sings she simply commands attention.
The Marguerite of French soprano Chantal Mathias is delivered with strength and focus, but without quite the agility and flexibility the role demands. Irish tenor Anthony Kearns is clearly a singer of potential.
He gets around the notes of the young Faust quite well, but doesn't yet really manage to convey much in the way of character or feeling, The old Faust of US tenor Joe Turpin falls less pleasantly on the ear, but is richer in nuance.
The production rather robs Irish bass Gerard O'Connor of any plausibility, and O'Connor's always considerable theatrical presence is less successful than usual in masking his uncertainties of pitch.
Irish baritones Martin Higgins (landed with a ridiculous cross-dressing costume as Wagner, as well as sound-impeding mask) and Owen Gilhooly (Valentin) both sing with more force than effectiveness, and mezzo soprano Edel O'Brien does what's asked of her as Marthe with spirit. All in all, then, this is not a production to suggest Opera Ireland has regained the faith it once had in Faust.
O'Conor, RTÉ NSO/ Markson
Brahms - Piano Concerto No 1. Symphony No 1
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's next few concerts constitute a BrahmsFest. The mini-festival features the complete symphonies and concertos of Brahms, the German Requiem, Tragic Overture, plus new commissions from Ireland (Fergus Johnston) and Poland (Krzysztof Meyer).
Brahms is one of those composers who has been at the heart of the standard symphonic repertoire for so long that it's easy to take him for granted.
His orchestral output is about as robust as you can find - as with a vegetable or cut of meat that can survive the crudest of treatment in the kitchen, bad handling seems to be no great bar to the amount of nourishment and enjoyment that can be had from it.
Even in his youth, Brahms was a perfectionist who seems to have been happy to destroy at least as many compositions as he preserved. His First Piano Concerto (premiered in January 1859, when he was just 25) had earlier incarnations as a work for two pianos and a symphony, and his actual First Symphony (first heard in 1876) was the outcome of a notorious 14-year struggle to deal with the shadow of Beethoven.
These NSO performances were in sturdy, middle-of-the-road style.
John O'Conor's was not the sort of manner to sweep you off your feet in the fiery concerto. His approach was musicianly, measured, earnest in expression, contained. Gerhard Markson was muted to match, and he always managed to keep the orchestra in a perspective that allowed the piano to maintain its profile.
In the symphony, Markson favoured well-blended textures, kept dynamics away from extremes, and rarely allowed the expression of the kind of Brahmsian fervour that might allow any suggestion of the music boiling over. However, the playing was sharper in outline and more clearly defined in colour than in the concerto, and the emotional temperature reached somewhat higher. In short, this was a soberly-judged obeisance to the work of a man who has long stood as a pillar of the establishment.
Emm Gryner is something of a cottage industry hot property in her native Canada: Juno award (Canada's Grammies, pretty much) nominations, major label signing, post-major label solo records, full-time singing with David Bowie, part-time member of the Cardigans. It all amounts to her being a busy little bee, a person whose obvious talent and sense of ambition overrides any need to be part of the pack.
Her individualistic streak runs through this gig like a hot knife through butter; for someone whose best known album in Ireland is last year's Songs of Love and Death (Irish rock/pop songs covered with grace, intelligence, inventiveness and cheek), Gryner chooses to nod to its presence rather than to acknowledge it wholesale.
Thin Lizzy's Running Back, Therapy?'s Nowhere, Horslips' Dearg Doom and Something Happens' Forget Georgia are aired, with the rest of the brief show mixing one other terrific cover (the Clash's Straight to Hell) with previews of songs from a forthcoming album, The Summer of High Hopes.
You'd think such an executive strategy might backfire, but the quality of the new and unfamiliar material ensures it doesn't. Songs such as Black Winged Bird, Girls Are Murder and Symphonic have so much going for them in the "perfect pop" category that their swirling melodies remain in the head long after the gig winds down. As for Gryner herself, well, she's a compact mixture of polite hostess, riot girl and Wonder Woman, something of a cultural cross between Lady Madonna and Lady Marmalade.
She cuts a cute figure on stage, almost hidden behind her bass guitar, leading the occasionally unsure male band members into musical areas it's possible they haven't been to before.
At the start of the gig, Gryner sits alone, playing gorgeous piano that weaves equal amounts of tender and tenacious into tendrils of aural beauty.
At the end, she and the band freak out to Dearg Doom. Somewhere in between lays the heart and soul of an artist that wants it all - on her own terms. Respect.
• Emm Gryner plays the Spirit Store, Dundalk, Fri Apr 28; Sugar Club, Dublin, Mon May 15