“Old ghosts,” James Joyce replies after Nora Barnacle wakes one night in their Trieste home and asks, “Who were you talking to?”
These are seriously old ghosts: Homer and Penelope, in a new chamber opera featuring music by Evangelia Rigaki and text by Marina Carr. In it, Joyce has started work on Ulysses, the centenary of whose publication, in 1922, is the subject of Ulysses 2.2, a multigenre celebration in 18 artistic responses to the 18 episodes of his great novel. The year-long project, created by Anu, Landmark and Museum of Literature Ireland, closes with this 18th instalment, in collaboration with Irish National Opera.
Old Ghosts, which is directed by Louise Lowe of Anu, is short and episodic, opening with tense exchanges between Joyce and Nora, anxious about money and missing Ireland. After she falls asleep, Homer appears and offers insider information and instruction to Joyce, his Odyssey-rooted novel still at an embryonic stage. Next, Penelope arrives, refuting Homer’s account of her long wait for the return of Ulysses, her husband, from Troy.
Rigaki’s music, colourfully scored for saxophone, harp, percussion, cello and double bass, radiates freedom and spontaneity, responding in almost expressionist style to the opera’s dialogue, its pre-eminent feature. There are glimpses of Irish music, of music from her native Greece, and jazz, all of it resonating with the stream-of-conscious technique for which the novel is famous.
Among numerous special connections – the opera’s opening night, on February 2nd, is Joyce’s 141st birthday – is the venue: St Stephen’s Green, two high-ceilinged Georgian rooms on the top floor of MoLI, formerly part of University College Dublin and in which Joyce spent much time as a student.
But the site also adds to the challenges facing the conductor Elaine Kelly, her players in one room, the singers and audience in the other. The balance she achieves is mostly but not always good. The result is the periodic obscuring of text, which also happens sometimes, through a mix of acoustics and delivery, with the two female voices, their compelling characterisations of Barnacle (Jade Phoenix) and Penelope (Doreen Curran) notwithstanding.
But – and especially as it’s Marina Carr, doubly in her absolute element exploring both domestic tension and figures from Greek myth – I want to hear every word.
The two men are more successful: the tenor Christopher Bowen is highly credible as Joyce; the bass William Gaunt, who lists no opera in his biography, fully engages as an unexpectedly laid-back and good-humoured Homer.
Runs at Museum of Literature Ireland, Dublin 2, until Saturday, February 4th