Reviewed today are Opera Ireland/Dal Bon at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin; Finucane, RTÉ NSO/Markson at the NCH, Dublin; and Testimonies from the Smashing Times Theatre Company.

Opera Ireland/Dal Bon

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

Verdi - La traviata

Opera Ireland's artistic director Dieter Kaegi seems to have a blind spot when it comes to choosing creative teams for Verdi's La traviata.

OI's last production, directed by Stephan Grögler and designed by Véronique Seymat in 1999, opened the stage all the way to the shutters on the back wall of the Gaiety, and managed to look at times like nothing more than a run-down warehouse for a liquidation sale of pub fittings.

The latest offering, a co-production with Theater Aachen, is directed by Joachim Rathke with rare profligacy. He seems to have integrated ideas by some kind of free association technique, leading to lots of shenanigans with a grand piano (it serves as a bureau, a store for shoes, an elevated platform for singing from, and eventually ends up hanging from on high), a double for Violetta, a pious old woman with rosary beads who traverses the stage in slow motion as if suffering from some kind of impediment, and a host of other absurdities.

Andreas Wilkens's gray-boarded set creates a seedy, down-at-heel mood, but any specific references he may have in mind are hard to make out. One option would be to regard the whole opera as a nightmare unfolding in an ancient operating theatre.

This could, for instance, explain the use of a sluice table in Act III and the presence of jars with foetuses. But, then, Imke Sturm-Krohne's finely-cut, carefully-coloured costumes would make that particular scenario hard to flesh out.

Suffice it to say that the improbability, fussiness and irrelevance of the production worked all too consistently against the work. The efforts of conductor Bruno Dal Bon were not a great help either. He set some absurdly slow tempos and consistently over-played his hand at milking the music for effect, as if Verdi were a composer not to be trusted for good sense.

As in the 1999 Traviata there was some good singing on offer.

The Violetta of Ukrainian soprano Victoria Loukianetz easily combined the necessary spirit and vulnerability, and, in spite of momentary touches of vocal instability, she used her fine-spun tone with consistently flexible and often touching artistry.

Her strongest scenes were with the forceful Germont of British baritone Jacek Strauch. The Alfredo of Italian tenor Giorgio Casciarri was extremely variable, sometimes risible in characterisation and fallible in intonation. He did, however, manage to ramp up the volume impressively and he found his best form for some of his showiest moments.

Irish soprano Sandra Oman was a venal Flora, and the chorus gamely adopted to the range of strange antics the director dreamt up for it.

Opera Ireland's winter season is at the Gaiety until Sunday, 01-8721122.

* Michael Dervan.

Finucane, RTÉ NSO/Markson

NCH, Dublin

Mozart - Marriage of Figaro overture

Raymond Deane - Samara

Weber - Clarinet Concerto No 1

Dvorák - New World symphony

Severity was mostly the order of the day from Gerhard Markson and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH on Friday.

The conductor seemed to be aiming for a sharply-drilled performance of Mozart's sparkling Marriage of Figaro overture. But the required level of orchestral discipline was not forthcoming and the music sounded driven and strait-jacketed without actually being really tight in ensemble.

Markson's approach to Dvorák's New World symphony was also of the hard-line variety. The brass blazed, the lower strings grunted, the violins raced. There was excitement, and there was languor.

But the music-making was afflicted with flat plateaus, both in heavy climaxes and in quieter moments, as if Dvorák were engaged on the elevated discourse of a Bruckner rather than something altogether smaller in scale and more pliable in manner. It is the great gift of Dvorák as a composer that even in as unpleasing a performance as this his music can still please a large proportion of the audience.

The orchestral playing showed a greater sensitivity in response to the burgeoning romanticism of Weber's First Clarinet Concerto, especially in the delicate mystery of some of the quieter moments. The NSO's able principal clarinettist John Finucane was an expressively plain rather than colourful soloist, agile in the more florid passages though not sufficiently so to put a real personal stamp on them.

The most rewarding music-making came in Raymond Deane's specially commissioned Samara. The title is taken from the word for seeds which disseminate on wings - think of the "helicopter" seeds children so love playing with - and the music incorporates passages of floating sensuality unusual in Deane's later music. There are also distinctive references to the music of exotic lands as well as some clotted modernist build-ups.

It's as if all of Deane is there, his avant-garde training, the allure of the music of France, where he spends part of the year, tangy sounds of the Middle East (he's a passionate and public advocate of the Palestinian cause), and the haunting harmonic sensibility that graced some of his earliest music in the 1970s.

* Michael Dervan


Helix Space

Smashing Times Theatre Company has a deserved reputation for exploring social issues with sensitivity and in depth. This new work deals with the difficult subject of suicide in three monologues based on interviews with people who lost loved ones to self-destruction.

Paul Kennedy's A Day Out is told by a young man (Sean O'Boyle) who had been at a concert with his best friend, who killed himself later that night.

In One Breath, by Mary Moynihan, is the story of a young mother (Bibbi Larsson) who suddenly becomes subject to panic attacks. The Samaritans are keeping her on the road to self-preservation. Paul Kennedy returns with Is There Anything We Can Do, the story of a woman (Margaret Toomey) whose 25-year old son recently committed suicide.

The company is clear that the plays are just a beginning, and need to be complemented by a panel-audience discussion. The panel consisted of the actors, a Samaritan, the writers and two psychotherapists, and the exchanges were extraordinary. Individual members of the audience spoke with courage about their experiences, and found sensitive and experienced listeners on the stage.

Let me say first that the plays, directed by Ena May, are true theatre, reaching out and embracing their listeners. On that bedrock, the ensuing conversations were structured and meaningful.

A pervasive theme was that suicidal people do not want to die, but are unable to cope with their pain, be it psychic or physical.

Alcohol, drugs and even medication are mere props that are apt to collapse at any time, precipitating a tragedy. They must be helped, and this work points the ways rather than draws maps. Smashing Times must continue with it.

* Gerry Colgan.