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Opera in Ireland: State of Play – Part 1
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Opera in Ireland: State of Play

Part 1

Written By George Fleeton

Wide Open Opera: Isolde und Tristan

The Met: Live in HD: Otello

Wexford: L’Arlesiana; Village Romeo & Juliet

Lyric Opera: Aida

Opera Theatre Company: Così fan Tutte

Consider for a moment these competing claims:

In launching

 “it is our ambition to provide unique and imaginative experiences for opera enthusiasts here in Ireland”


We continue

“to perform operatic rarities to the highest standards of which we are capable”


Our company

 “is now the driving force of main-scale opera in Ireland today”


We are

 “Ireland’s national opera company”


All from the same hymn sheet?

Or mere wishful thinking?

Let’s see.

Tristan und Isolde

Wide Open Opera’s inaugural production was Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (seen on September 30) in the re-branded Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Dublin.

It was heavy going: two lovers (Isolde is the only explicit Irish character any where in European opera), a love potion, and a love-death, a liebestod – think Romeo and Juliet, or Heathcliff and Catherine, and you are on the right page.

When this opera first opened, in Munich in 1865, the reception ran the gamut from intense hostility (the anti-Wagner claque) to stunned admiration, and lively rows resulted for years after.

Wagner was half way through composing his Ring cycle, struggling with it and an extra-marital affair, when he decamped to compose Tristan.

In so doing he  started to re-write the musical history of Europe, giving life to his theories in a work that had no pre-existing models, no antecedents – a very complex, very long and entirely new system of harmony, a musical time-bomb.

Most opera managements today think long and hard before scheduling this work: it is fiendishly difficult to cast and takes ages to rehearse properly.

So hats off to Wide Open Opera for the time and effort invested in bringing it to us, in advance of the Wagner bicentenary year 2013.

And brava to Miriam Murphy (Kerry’s only Princess Iosóid), and to Imelda Drumm (who made impact in the rather thankless role of Brangӓne, lady-in-waiting), but couldn’t the revival director have provided them with something to sit on, in all three Acts?

Valuable performance experience too for Irish singers Eamonn Mulhall, Eugene Ginty, Owen Gilhooly and Gavan Ring.

This production started life almost 20 years ago at Welsh National Opera, and the scenery, props and costumes all showed their age, and not to advantage either.

This revival, given its generous budget, needed lots more animation (for example during the long Act 1 Prelude) and much more imaginative use of the scrim and the silhouettes to convey the past and present tenses of the tragic narrative, but the huge oblique slab in Act 3 got in everyone’s way: it was monstrous, distracting and pointless (as if the Sentinel/monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey had fallen over and caught our collective attention for all the wrong reasons).

So, this Tristan unique? Not quite.

Imaginative? Afraid not


The Metropolitan Opera live from New York on selected Saturday evenings, at two dozen different venues across 32 counties – does this qualify as Opera in Ireland: State of Play?

Of course it does.

Since December 2006, the Met (self-styled Socratic patriarch of the world’s great opera houses) has been beaming ten or twelve operas a year in to cinemas worldwide in a successful attempt to proselytize new audiences for the art.

We all benefit from this; Ireland’s multiplexes and arts centres have capacity audiences (I have been to several of them); it feeds new appetites for our indigenous productions, it delivers works that even Wexford couldn’t handle, and this new platform is called simply ‘Live Alternative Cinema’.

The first Met: Live in HD offering this season was Donizetti’s Elisir d’Amore (reviewed here at DownNews on October 18).

The second was Verdi’s Otello (seen in the Dundonald Omniplex Belfast on October 27).

The visual and sensory power of this production was overwhelming.

German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, singing Iago, dominated, with a malevolence of character that Shakespeare created, which Verdi then foregrounded in his music and which Struckmann managed to chew to bits.

South-African tenor Johan Botha (Otello) was clearly souffrant but declaimed impressively, while Pennsylvania’s own Renée Fleming sang a superb Desdemona in this powerhouse staging of Verdi’s penultimate opera (La Scala, 1887)

Verdi was only 74 years old then, resting, sixteen years after Aida and, in spite of Bernard Shaw’s catty remark, the Roncole/Busseto maestro’s well had not run dry.

Aging Verdi was by this time writing differently.

He had met Wagner and his work, had had a good think about them and was now (and in Falstaff, his final opera, 1893) producing powerful, passionate, continuous streams of music, responsive to the meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry: real melodrama, which in classical Greek theatre is music inextricably welded to plot and character.

If in doubt try listening to the music of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; or Aristophanes and Menander, if you like lighter stuff.

That’s what the Camerata Fiorentina did at the end of the 16th century and what we got from their musings was 400 years of lyric opera, from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to Puccini’s Turandot

Meanwhile poor Puccini was going to have a very hard time, at baton changeover in the 1890s, when he was expected to assume Verdi’s mantle and continue to fly the flag for Italian opera.

The next Metropolitan Operas to reach us in Ireland, as live alternative cinema, will be Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito on December 01, Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera on December 08 and his Aida on December 15.

A further six operas will be shown in early 2013.

In Part 2 I shall be considering two main stage productions from Wexford, and more recent productions from Lyric Opera and Opera Theatre Company, all seen in November.

George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland and abroad.

His two Recitals – Spring and Love and The Spirit of Holy Week – will be given in Downpatrick, at 3pm, on February 17 and March 24 respectively.

Full details next month here on