Walton at Greenacres

conor x

Walton at Greenacres Art Gallery

 

 ‘I wanted to learn the skills that I felt I needed to learn and the avant garde simply were not offering it,’ reflects Conor Walton on his time at the National College of Art and Design, from which he emerged, defiantly, with a Joint Honours Degree in History of Art and Fine Art, in 1993. ‘So I thought, give me the skills and I will decide what to do with them.’

Between graduating from NCAD, gaining an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex in 1995 and his first solo exhibition at Jorgensen Fine Art in 1999, Walton received a rigorous training in the practice and tradition of drawing and painting from life at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence: sight-size as a portrait technique has its origins in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez.

In the celebrated Las Meninas, Velazquez documents himself at his canvas, the orchestrator of a conceptual profundity of mise-en-scene and several people – the artist, the subject, the viewer – and in doing so initiated a multiplicity of relationships which will be emulated by artists through the ages. Walton’s self-portraits similarly invite you to draw your own conclusions regarding substance and intention. ‘There is a concern for me to get, at some level, significance or meaning,’ he explains. Velazquez broke with the traditions of his time to allow the outside world in, to give a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the painter at work.

This light-heartedness and openness is often replicated by Walton: you can watch a time-lapse video on Facebook of the evolution of his self-portrait, Push Over, which will be on show at his solo exhibition at The Greenacres Gallery. Equally compelling is the footage of Rest, in which the artist’s handling is direct and fresh, and the viewer is privy to a private symbiosis in which artist and subject are fused.

Walton – born in 1970 – is a figurative painter in the European tradition, pursuing his craft at the highest level, pushing the envelope in his desire to answer the three questions in Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Walton concedes that some of his work is ‘very big and complicated’ – An Ape’s Limbs Compared to Man’s – with a mesh of narrative, philosophy and references to current affairs. This in turn is balanced by a need to ‘be simple and matter of fact, if I can be. It has developed into a yin yang thing, my work as a whole. The complicated pictures to some extent leave me very dissatisfied and it is hard to make them work. On the other side I will try to do something as simple and as basic as I can, which allows for a small achievement.’

His oeuvre, therefore, is breath-taking in its reach: portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life and allegory, a fluid accentuation of the questions posed by Gaugin. ‘A work of art should tell something of who we are,’ adds Walton. ‘The function of art should give us some insight into what we are.’ It has been said of him that he can be politically conscious without being sanctimonious, but beneath the surface of the larger work is a confrontation of the human and the mythical: The Barbarians At the Gates is a wry multi-layered observation of a mistrustful Europe under siege. But this is Walton standing on his own two feet, creating a world as distinctly his at those of his contemporaries.

His attention to detail has a clinical purity, and in his epic allegories you will encounter the consistencies and discontinuities of life, because each single painting, irrespective of size or ambition, is the spawn of a multitude of perceptions. The exhibition at Greenacres is the work of an artist determined to be faithful to his vision, pursued in the secluded independence of his studio overlooking Wicklow town, where he lives with his wife, Jane, a mountaineering instructor, and three children.

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Sean Hillen exhibition, Kamera 8, Wexford

pyramids

There hasn’t been a photography exhibition of the ilk of Sean Hillen at Kamera 8 in Wexford before, for one reason. Nobody captures his sense of history in reverse, or the cultural filter he deploys to segue pictorial elements from diametrically opposed sources, and deliver a composition.

Consider The Great Pyramids of Carlingford Lough: pure montage, but with a distinctive Hillen trope. I use ‘trope’ deliberately, because the metaphor is more figurative than narrative. So Hillen requires you to look beyond or, better still, look beneath.

Light is a keyhole rusting gently after rain, wrote Derek Mahon in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, and time is the undiscovered country in this work. Elsewhere, peruse Trouble With Glacier in Henry Street, Dublin, or The Lia Fail of Wexford, and perhaps Hillen is suggesting that photographic clichés exist to enable us to reconsider reality.

The news photographs rooted in Northern Ireland should have one function: arouse conflicting emotions, and they do, but our empathy is framed by detachment, and perhaps war fatigue. This is no fault of Hillen. With Ecstatic Nuns Outside the Casino at Powerscourt, the montage has the joie de vivre of collage, as if Truffaut is directing from the wings.

Jason Yeager/Randal Despommier

Once
When New Orleans-born jazz alto saxophonist and classical composer Randal Despommier moved to New York City in the summer of 2013, he teamed up an with award-winning jazz pianist/composer from Boston, Jason Yeager, to explore improvisational arrangements of classical repertoire.

During the jam sessions, they would mess around with jazz standards, preludes by Scriabin, and folk songs and arrange, rearrange, and sometimes ‘de-range’ pieces, like two Rimbaud hipsters.

Some of these “derangements” include Despommier’s Cherokee-meets-Le Sacre du printemps (entitled “Rite of Cherokee”), described by the saxophonist as something of a primal Bop dance.

Yeager’s version of Danse de la fureur is a fiery, adventurous atonal saxophone and piano/rhodes duet that draws from the sixth movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. These high-octane fusion works on All At Onceness are counterbalanced by two original compositions: Despommier’s The First Flowers, an ethereal, lyrical setting of a poem by Hermann Hesse, and Yeager’s Telekinesis, a playful, Kafkaesque jazz vocalise interpolated with collective improvisation from the ensemble.

Critical to the standout originals are the contributions of vocalist Aubrey Johnson, whose exquisite tone and deep improvisational prowess are particularly strong on the closing track, Despommier’s arrangement of Bartók’s Bagatelle Op. 10 No. 4.

In this work, following a scintillating solo by Johnson, Despommier joins the fray as a vocalist, in the majestic choral section that closes out the album. Lighting a creative fire under the front line is the top-notch rhythm team of drummer Jay Sawyer (Freddy Cole, Itamar Borochov) and bassist Danny Weller (Jason Palmer, Radio City Music Hall Christmas Orchestra), who contribute imaginative musical commentary to Telekinesis, Bagatelle and Rite of Cherokee.

Martin Wind

 

Martin Wind’s Light Blue features old friends: Anat Cohen (clarinet), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Matt Wilson (drums), Scott Robinson (multi-reeds), Bill Cunliffe (piano), Gary Versace (piano, organ), Duduka DaFonseca (drums) and Maucha Adnet (vocals).

There are milestones in a musician’s career, and life for that matter, which pass without acknowledgement. What with rehearsals, travel, and recording sessions, a busy professional rarely has the opportunity to note a watershed moment.

With Light Blue, Wind registers the significance of this moment in time. This recording comes some 25 years after recording his first release as a leader, Gone With The Wind, and Light Blue is being released shortly before he turns fifty. Since that initial outing, Wind has released another 18 albums as a leader or co-leader and he has become one of New York’s most in-demand bassists.

Wind recorded Light Blue with engineer Matt Balitsaris at Maggie’s Farm in April 2017 in between a myriad of gigs including backing singers Dena DeRose and Ann Hampton Callaway, Ted Rosenthal’s Monk Project, showcasing his quartet in Los Angeles, and performing with Pat Metheny and Matt Wilson at the Wichita Jazz Festival.

The remainder of the year found him touring with Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family (performing Honey And Salt, the poetry of Carl Sandburg), presenting Schubert’s Trout Quintet and the premiere of his composition Looking Back with the American Chamber Ensemble, and performing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Ted Rosenthal and Phoenix Symphony.

Besides being a master musician, Wind penned the ten compositions heard on Light Blue. There are seven new pieces and three that are new versions of some of his classic compositions, such as 10 Minute Song and Cruise Blues, both from his quartet recording Salt ‘N Pepper (2008), and A Sad Story from Gone With the Wind (1993). His skills as an arranger are evident here, as they were on the critically acclaimed Turn Out The Stars, on which Wind performed music written or inspired by pianist Bill Evans with his quartet, plus the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana

The Rivers of Dublin

liffeyiffey

One of the more memorable photographs of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach features him, grim-faced in his wellies, braving the flood waters of the Tolka River. Although Tolka derives from the Gaelic, An Tulca, meaning flood, the ill-omened name never quite deterred residential and industrial development along its hazardous banks.

The lesson of natural history is that you ignore portentous warnings at your peril: the Tolka’s flat catchment of 58 squares miles and a narrow drop of 460 feet in just under 20 miles, is a recipe for a long history of flooding of Dublin’s north side, with frequent calamitous costs: the deluge of November 2002 which Ahern braved up to his knees, resulted in E20 million spent on flood alleviation.

This is just one of many interesting asides in a newly revised edition of the late Clair L. Sweeney’s The Rivers of Dublin, a labour of love for the Dublin Corporation engineer who devoted most of his life to tracing and walking, above ground and under, the estimated 60 watercourses circumnavigating and penetrating the city.

As an engineer, the author had unparalleled access to tributaries, creeks, brooks and streams which thrived in isolation. As the city and its population expanded in the last century, they became hidden from view and were largely unknown to many, though not from the persistent explorations of Sweeney.

He wasn’t averse to getting his hands dirty or his feet wet in reconnoitring some of the network of 1,300 miles of sewers under Dublin, advanced in 1810 because the over flooding of rivers like the Poddle, used by the labouring poor of the Liberties, caused dysentery, typhoid and cholera. ‘Ten to sixteen people of all ages and both genders were in a room not 15 feet square, in filthy conditions, with thirty to fifty people to one house,’ writes Sweeney.

The Poddle was also known as the Sologh, meaning dirty, at a time when the putrefying effect of waterborne sewage of the Liffey was dreadful.

Hence the moniker, dirty old town.

Sweeney, raised in the Liffey Valley when Palmerstown was a village remote from the city centre, sought out tributaries incorporated into the claustrophobic subterranean channels and tunnels. Delving like Indiana Jones into murky depths, he made important discoveries, such as finding the site of St. Winifred’s Well, near the junction of Eustace and Essex Streets, lost since the Middle Ages.

Norman Maclean memorably concluded his famous fishing fable, A River Runs Through it, with an admission that he was ‘haunted by waters.’ So too was Sweeney. Though without Maclean’s poetic flair for description, he can be as evocative and perceptive with his industrious arsenal of words. In Sweeney’s company, it is a given that all running water, in its natural form and before it is spoiled by pollution, is beautiful.

Unlike Orpheus, he does succeed in bringing the dead to life from the underworld: he enters the stygian darkness under Kevin Street via a manhole, walks for three quarters of a mile through a maze of culverts, some as low as five feet, encountering history at every turn: he details the exact spot where Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison in 1591.

Sweeney believed that the long history of Dublin, like many of the old capital cities of Europe – Paris, London, Rome – was best understood through its rivers, and because many were hidden from view, he was motivated to breathe life into these alternate maps of Dublin. Imagine filling an abstruse crossword by candlelight and without the aid of clues: this is Sweeney’s achievement, and each paragraph liberates another watercourse from the hibernation of neglect.

Consider his investigation into the Bradoge river: it has had many variants – Bradok, Le Rughdich, Glascoynock, St. Michael’s streams – with each rooted in the colonisation of Dublin: the stream Michan is rechristened Glasmacanog by the early Christian Norse after they are persuaded to move to Oxmanstown, north of the Liffey, by the Anglo Normans. This could be the beginning of the recorded history of a stretch of water whose descent eastwards from its humble source, a ‘cow-drink pond’, is as adventurous and as colourful as the boat in Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre.

You can sense Sweeney’s excitement as the river, forever escaping the clutches of warring tribes and rerouting by monks, is both a witness to and a participant in the nascent city’s growth. He is the ideal chronicler of every nook and cranny lapped by the Bradoge which flows resiliently through the ages until it is, eventually and inevitably, tamed by the public drainage system.

Books about rivers are ten a penny, but I doubt if you will find one with a comparable plenitude of minutiae as Sweeney’s, who connects vital gobbets of folklore and enumerated facts to create layers of story and meaning.

Sweeney is both detective and pathologist, who segues what rivers and their etymology have in common, how form and meaning change over time.

This is his great gift and his legacy: The Rivers of Dublin not alone charts the history of these vital arteries into the city, but does so with scintillating storytelling and meticulous illustrations, excavating entire societies and resurrecting ancient conduits.

The five main rivers of the Ancient Greek myths were associated with death, but Sweeney’s myriad of arteries throughout Dublin, brim with life. The Dodder, he reminds us, down to the end of the 19th century, turned mill-wheels all along its course – corn mills, cloth mills, flour mills, tuck mills, saw mills, paper mills, iron mills, calico print factors – but were ‘erased and forgotten by the grandchildren of yesteryear’s generation.’

The history of Dublin is that of its rivers, but until the sheer passion and hard work of Sweeney, it was a history in danger of remaining underground.

Mayu Saeki

mayu

Hope

Flautist/composer Mayu Saeki’s debut recording, Hope, breathes and resonates with beauty and optimism. Hope tells the story of Saeki’s journey to NYC from her native Tokyo. There she left a complete life for an uncertain future in New York City.

Shortly after arriving, armed only with extensive classical training and mentorship, determination and hope, not to mention an abundance of talent, the opportunity presented itself to be a part of Chico Hamilton’s group.

She toured and recorded with Hamilton, appearing on several albums, including Revelation and Euphoric (both were released in 2011 from Joyous Shout! records), until his passing in 2013.

Hope from Brroklyn Jazz Underground Records feels like the fifth or sixth offering from a veteran on the scene. Saeki certainly had an advantage, recording with Aaron Goldberg, Joe Sanders, John Davis and Nori Ochiai (a former student of Goldberg’s and a fine modern jazz pianist in his own right), but her self-assurance comes across without dubiety.

Her solo on the title track bears a joyful swagger (immediately following a gem of a solo from Mr. Goldberg). Her playing, specifically the intro, solo and outro, on Soshu-Yakyoku are also moments to behold, as they encapsulate the sincerity and soul of this album.

And, her band mates are on board completely, and given ample space to express their brilliance. Check out Joe Sanders’ breathtaking playing on Do You Know, and behold drummer John Davis’ brilliant, flowing solo over the vamp of the same tune.

Goldberg is flawless throughout, but a highlight is his accompaniment and solo on the opening track, Dilemma. Libertango and Oblivion showcase Mayu’s classical training and her love for the music of Astor Piazzolla (with Oblivion displaying Mayu’s expertise on piccolo flute).

Gaia Wilmer

Migrations  introduces the music of Brazilian composer and saxophonist Gaia Wilmer, an emerging voice in the contemporary jazz communityDrawing inspiration from Brazilian music, its harmonies, rhythms and melodies, and from contemporary jazz, Gaia creates a unique and colourful world of music that is both cerebral and emotional.
She draws inspiration from composers such as Hermeto Pascoal, Guillermo Klein, Kenny Wheeler, Vijay Iyer and Maria Schneider, and the pieces generate their shapes and feelings from the idea of home.
The opener, After Them, was the first piece written for this octet between Gaia attending concerts and master classes by Vijay Iyer, Maria Schneider and Geri Allen, and draws its inspiration from those experiences. It alternates between one main bass line and a rhythmic idea in the piano inspired by Iyer’s music.
The shapes and textures of the lines, both in the bass and in the top melodies come from impressions of Schneider’s melodies and orchestrations. The melody evolves into a flute solo by Yulia Musayelyan which leads back to the opening bass line, and the return of the main melody.
Criancada started as an exercise, playing with constant structures and developed in to an energetic tune with a joyful melody that plays with the relationships between 3/4, 6/8 and 6/4 and the different ways of feeling those meters. The title of the tune means, “a bunch of kids”. The solo section follows the same idea with Leandro Pellegrino on guitar and Gustavo D’Amico on tenor saxophone interacting with each other.
The title piece,  Migrations, was written after a Guillermo Klein concert in Boston and features Raphael Lehnen on bombo legüero and Song Yi Jeon on voice. Written specifically for these artists and inspired by Klein’s music, this piece was the first one written after the group was settled.
Centered around the interval of a third, the piece starts with an acappella introduction, developing this intervallic motif. The composition was also inspired by the Kenny Wheeler album, Music for Large and Small Ensembles.
Helen came from exploring modes found in scales other than the common major. The ostinato, the chords and the melody are based on the mixolydian b6 mode from the melodic minor scale. It is the only composition on the album (with the exception of Hermeto Pascoal’s “Acuri”) that was written for a smaller ensemble and not specifically for the octet. It is dedicated to Helen de la Rosa, the drummer who first played the tune.
Cha is a ballad written for love and friendship, and explores free improvisation between the wind players. It starts with a free duet with Gustavo D’Amico on soprano saxophone and Gaia on alto that leads to the main theme. It also features solos by Mayo Pamplona on bass and Vitor Gonçalves on accordion.
The harmonic ideas of the energetic  No Talking arose from the constant structure and geometric atmosphere of “Giant Steps”. In the first section, the main motif is transposed and developed in myriad harmonic ways, while separated by a minor third. The second section presents a contrasting idea that is also transposed and developed but this time by major thirds.

Tomas Fujiwara

tomas

 

Triple Double

Bandleader, composer, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara possesses a musical dexterity that might go unnoticed if not for its ripple effect. He has brought his rhythmic and compositional imprint to a wide variety of settings: as a member of the collective trio Thumbscrew and in a long-standing duo with Taylor Ho Bynum. While these collaborative efforts could define and sustain him, a more ambitious musical intelligence emerges on closer inspection.

Tomas’s instincts as a bandleader for assembling combinations of players have enlivened not just his own bands but have generated new collaborative relationships throughout the creative music scene.

For instance, Michael Formanek’s renowned ensemble includes the entirety of The Hook Up. This understanding of how to assemble a band – the different approaches and timbres a group of players bring to a given context – is, in its way, akin to writing conventional melody and harmony, or to understanding how to combine silence and sound in an improvisation. Tomas’s new recording, Triple Double, showcases this gift: viewed as a double trio or a triple duo, its heart lies in the contrasting, shifting and regrouping of the players’ instrumental voices.

Triple Double debuts two encounters on paired instruments: trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Bynum; and on drums, Tomas and Ger Cleaver. Additionally, it features Brandon Seabrook and Halvorson, two avatars of contemporary electric guitar.

Seen another way, the sextet brings together two longstanding trios: Tomas’s own group with Alessi and Seabrook, and another with his long-time collaborators Halvorson and Bynum. The album features all the possible permutations in a churning group music, highlighting both Tomas’s compositional strengths and the distinct musical personalities of each performer.

Through a variety of approaches, including grid patterns, mirrored ensemble play, and a subtle interplay of structure and freedom, Tomas’s compositions offer each musician the chance to display their own formidable technique and vocabulary. The variety of groupings, instrumental shading, and formal contours present a mutable orchestra conforming itself to the composition’s needs.

The opening cut, Diving for Quarters, offers a succinct illustration of this vision. Based around a fifteen-beat cycle, the music draws the listener in with Halvorson and Seabrook’s exotic opening improvisation. Brass is featured next, with Bynum coercing a statement of the melody from his cornet before Alessi weaves his way to the foreground. The piece closes with a drum duo and Tomas and Cleaver demonstrate why they are two of the most in-demand percussionists in creative music.

The album’s philosophical center piece, For Alan, is another drum duo and features a recording of ten-year-old Tomas in a lesson with his mentor Alan Dawson.

The album shifts from the more freewheeling feel of the first half to something more evocative: in the second half of the album, melody comes to the forefront, anchored by more grounded rhythmic forms. The change in mood may also reflect a deeper message – as with previous albums, Triple Double has Tomas’s family history in mind.

 

Music for Wexford: 2013

I am indebted to Music for Wexford for a plenitude of reasons, best encapsulated by introducing me to a new way of listening to music, achievable solely by the quality of the performer and the pedigree of the programme.

Music for Wexford taught me to expect the unexpected at its concerts, such as the occasion one summer Wednesday afternoon when I first heard Spiegel im Spiegel : I was ensconced in a rear pew in St. Iberius Church beside my Music for Wexford fellow devotee Senan O’Reilly, and I remember thinking: not a single note too many.

This response to music is best articulated by Arvo Part: the spirit of the listener is the prism which separates the colours inherent in the white light of music. It isn’t a mystery to me why some compositions appeal and other don’t, but I have Music for Wexford to thank for focusing my energies on the journey, and not the destination.

What Part intimated about the role of the listener as a catalyst for whatever magic is brewed at a performance has been underscored at almost every performance by the Music for Wexford-promoted Ensemble Avalon.

This dynamic trio (Ioana Pectu-Colan, Gerald Peregrine and Michael McHale) extended the innovative remit of Music for Wexford by performing new and not necessarily well known piano repertoire during their annual concert.

Through Music for Wexford and Ensemble Avalon I encountered the work of Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, whose A space of life between was premiered at St. Iberius by Ensemble Avalon.

And when Pectu-Colan guided the RTE Orchestra through the three movement Violin Concerto by Philip Glass at Wexford Opera House, the ‘white light’ of Arvo Part evolved into a cathartic experience.

I cannot, with any insurable clarity, recall my earliest Music for Wexford concerts, but it was at a time when I didn’t take notes, more’s the pity.

That changed in or around the Spring Festival 13 years ago, when I was blown away by the St. Matthew Passion at Rowe St. Church, with the Orchestra of St. Cecilia and three choirs, a trinity of atomic sonority deployed to heighten the profundity of the story Bach wished to unfold in solos and choral fantasias. Scribbling in the aftermath helped me make sense of what I had just heard.

Personally, the reward of being a listener is the discovery of new sensations. It happened this year with a munificent performance by pianist Philip Martin, and with the opening chords of Gottschalk’s Havana Melody, I felt as Keats must have done prepping  On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer.

Gottschalk, about whom I knew zilch, suddenly, courtesy of Martin’s playing, segued the gap between New Orleans Creole music and New Orleans jazz. He foreshadowed ragtime before it became popular forty years after his death, and this I learned at a Music for Wexford concert.

In conclusion, what the following composers – Messiaen, Poulenc, Blavet, Gaubert, Duparc, Milhaud, Breval, Farrell, Franck, to name but a mere few – have in common for me is that I first knelt at their altar at a Music for Wexford concert. The most creative thinking in the arts often occurs in unlikely spots far from the madding crowd, and so it continues to be with Music for Wexford.

Wexford Festival Reviews: 2013

Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze

Nino Rota

 

This was Wexford’s second crack at securing a Nino Rota opera and whether it was worth the wait is the question?

There was little to dislike about the production: vivacious and brash, it had an unusually large cast for a frankly vacuous storyline, almost as vapid as 2012’s Le Roi malgre lui, it was derived from a motley collection of influences

What to expect from an opera buffa, if it is to succeed and engage its audience, is an abundance of charm.

The source, therefore, of a moveable feast of mirth is the casting, and this production benefited from good interplay by dramatically strong singers, both visually and vocally, like Filippo Fontana, Salvatore Salvaggio and Eleanor Lyons.

It seemed to me, blame my rusty Italian, the guys got all the best lines, but nonetheless, though she is no Meryl Streep, well, not yet, Claudia Boyle, in a difficult role if you are not a natural comic, handled herself reasonably well.

One of Boyle’s calling cards is her propensity for the dramatic, her ability to stand out, no mean feat on a riotous stage directed with skill and with homage to the Marx Brothers by Andrea Catalano.  She has some of the best of the prolonged lyrical passages, and when she is off the leash, there is no restraint.

It is unfortunate to review a farsa musicale after its premiere, because one could imagine the cast coming to grips with the mayhem after two or three outings. Comedy on stage often starts as a flat battery.

Like a football match, it was a game of two halves: the second compensating for the trivial predominance of the first, and as the plot, not worth analysing in depth, dovetailed to its natural and predictable outcome, the acting, ironically, became more challenging. No surprise that for an opera by Rota, who scored The Godfather, a horse’s head figures throughout.

A special mention for Filippo Adami, who was a last minute replacement for Davide Giusti, but he took to Il Cappello Di Paglia Di Firenze like a swallow to the sun, and was reunited with Andrea Cigni, both veterans of the Florence production of the opera in 2011.

Also reprising his role from Florence was the aforementioned Salvaggio who, as the father in law to be, Nonancourt, just about had the dramatic edge on everybody else, and turned the effectiveness of nuanced acting into a fine art.

I don’t know if Lorenzo Cutuli also designed the Florentine production, but his stage, from where I was sitting, seemed skimpy, and perhaps better suited for a ShortWorks, but this is a minor cavil. Paris on stage ought to be floriferous bright.

If the scenery didn’t cause a retinal sensation, it was practical for the anarchy amongst the busy ensemble unfolding across four acts. Unusually, this is considered Rota’s best opera, and in parts you can see why, as he has borrowed with the flagrancy of a magpie in the nesting season from Donizetti and Rossini. The music was designed to accompany the explosions of farce, so it is both lively and sassy. Energetic conductor Sergio Alapont’s orchestra was therefore alert and eager although, for Wexford ears, this fondue of an opera could have done with more meat.

 

Cristina

Foroni

Lightning striking twice rarely occurs in life, unless you are a politician, but in opera, it can happen occasionally.

Who would have thought it possible for Wexford to unearth two diamonds – Juan Diego Florez and Josef Calleja – between 1996 and 1998, and to potentially repeat the achievement across such a short abridgement with a duo of exceptional sopranos.

Wexford Opera House alumna Angela Meade, was the surprise sensation in Mercadante’s Virginia in 2010, although she was no bolt from the blue for Artistic Director David Agler, who had in mind only one singer for the role.

One suspects that he also knew that the part of Cristina in Jacopa Foroni’s historical-lyrical drama was bespoke for a singer of the calibre and range of Australia soprano Helen Dix. She emerged molten cool for the role from the off.

This opera succeeded on so many levels that it seems unfair to portray Dix as the foundation to a quite superb production, but you cannot imagine it reaching the heights without her.

She may not be the best actress in the world, but God loves a trier, especially with a voice that parades phenomenal coloratura, and has the torque of a million dawns rolled into one.

It’s quite eerie to hear the Dix throttle awaken from its disguised slumber, an approaching thunder fuelled by the amphetamine of a westerly, but she dominates the stage like a Caesar.

Dix aside for a moment, Wexford’s take on Foroni’s version of Christina, a Swedish version of Elizabeth I (a religious zealot married to the throne), is transferred seamlessly to World War II, a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Once she abdicates, the permafrost of State terror inches closer to the surface.

News reel footage did not distract from the aesthetic merits of Statkowski’s Maria two years ago, and is used throughout by director Stephen Medcalf and designer Jamie Vartan, the team behind the sumptuous A Village Romeo and Juliet.

Medcalf and Vartan like to use every inch of the stage, transmogrifying it whenever the libretto allows, so that the reward is a visual stimulation before the unfolding of aural delights.

They are also partial to appetizing dancing, which lent A Village Romeo and Juliet much of its pastoral charm, and – surprise, surprise – they were reunited with its choreographer Paula O’Reilly in Cristina.

The one considerable advantage of a choreographer with a preference for the epic, such as O’Reilly, who is never tedious, is a feeling of wholesomeness about the production.

Cristina is a wonderful spectacle, as was A Village Romeo and Juliet, although one sensed a non too subtle nod to The King’s Speech, especially with the address of Dix to the nation.

Medcalf ensures that his cast becomes acquainted with every nook and cranny of the stage, but even his skill cannot soften the overwhelming power of Dix’s lusty lustre, and if the theatre were bathe in darkness you wouldn’t care, such is the focused tenderness of the abdicating queen, or the ferocity of the scorned lover, her voice the unsheathed claw of vexed cat.

The music, a gorgeous overture which is revisited in the prolonged musical introduction to key scenes, is conducted with exceptional care and, one might say love, by Sergio Alapont. The role of Cristina is Shakespearean in that one character dominates, but Lucia Cirillo, David Stout and Patrick Hyland are amply gifted as thespians to resist the gravitational pull of a quiet awesome Dix. To my knowledge, only one recording of the opera exists (Gothenburg Opera), which makes it a revival of a lost masterpiece.

The Sleeping Queen

Balfe

Wexford in 2013 remembers its roots, with a nod to both Balfe (The Sleeping Queen) and Donizetti (L’Elisir D’amore), two safe pair of hands that artistic directors have revisited when the cupboard was bare, or in need of a non-perishable quality.

However, The Sleeping Queen fits the bill as a genuine curiosity and is ideal for the ShortWork programme, daily drawing full houses to the Presentation Secondary School, which adapts itself well to the burst of migration from down town.

The Sleeping Queen, a one act operetta, cleverly opens with the cast abridging the life and times of Balfe in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth and how he came to be synonymous with Wexford, even if The Bohemian Girl to a younger generation is better known today as a Main Street hair salon.

With performers as charming and as at ease as Johane Ansell, Christina Gill, Ronan Busfield and Padraic Rowan, the net effect is an audience ripe for anything, and designer Sarah Bacon contributes imaginatively to Sophie Motley’s direction to add a pantomime-esque background to what was a hastily written farce by Balfe, whilst aping Rossini. But because it is Balfe, it is not without attractive coloratura for the soprano.

Presumably because of its brevity, and written for piano and harmonium, and so frivolous and thus unbecoming of the sensitive Balfe, The Sleeping Queen never sees the light of stage, but it is another prism with which to view the composer who seems to have regretted its first incarnation, later adding an orchestra, a chorus and recitatives.

Wexford was the first staged production in Ireland in living memory and in mood and tempo both cast and crew were pitch perfect. It is a charming piece and it is a wonder why it is not performed more often. Wexford took a 19th Century relic, put it  in the microwave, and defrosted it.

L’Elisir D’Amore

Donizetti

In his programme notes, the irrepressible director of L’Elisir D’Amore, Roberto Recchia, was asked to do a traditional staging, but he went one step further by suffusing the production at Presentation Secondary School with warmth and – his trademark – comic empathy.

Many of us would have grown up listening to our parents’ version of L’Elisir D’Amore with Sutherland and Pavarotti, when their voices were still heavenly sent. Recchia is always his own man and was never going to be tethered to a classic interpretation: he sought an alternative to the coldness and discomfort of other older productions he was acquainted with.

And because Wexford’s L’Elisir D’Amore was closer to an hour and forty minutes in length, Recchia had to keep this ShortWork engaging for an audience whose behinds on hard seats had the shelf life of about an hour and fifteen minutes.

The casting of Thomas Faulkner  – a very fine actor – was inspired, because from the moment he appeared as Dr Dulcamara the English baritone gave the production its heart: his absence from the stage thereafter, as Donizetti intended, is keenly felt and, naturally, anticipated.

His patter song – the greatest number of words in the shortest possible time – is accompanied by a typical Recchia juxtaposition of video, an inventive montage, knitted together with wit and imagination by the director, and immediately, what started out as a conservative opera, was lifted above the mundane. Recchia is capable of Technicolor strokes which keep you on your toes.

A larger than normal cast for a ShortWork, only a handful get a chance to shine, such as Ian Beadle, while Patrick Hyland, in a principal role, was always in command of his brief on a busy stage, is a very capable performer and is one to watch in the future.

Hyland’s Adina, credimi  was also a special moment for this Irish tenor . Productions of L’Elisir D’Amore are legion where a very good Nemorino,  or an Adina, a Belcore or a Dr Dulcamara, because they are so well written by Donizetti, have stolen the show, and the garlands in this instance go to Faulkner’s interpretation of the latter, followed closely by his English compatriot, Beadle. Recchia always has a judicious eye for the small detail, so it was gratifying that the ensemble playing excelled.

Losers

Richard Wargo

You could be mistaken for thinking that Losers would be a blood relative of Winners, whose premiere in Wexford in 2010 was attended by the affable composer, Richard Wargo.

However, inspired by Brian Friel, who wrote the plays upon which the operas are based, Wargo took a new path with Losers so that he was both faithful to the source and yet free of it.

Director of this strong production, Conor Hanratty, in his programme notes makes two disputable claims: the characters are presented without mockery and Wargo paints with brighter colours than Friel.

Eleanor Lyon’s Mrs Wilson is a one dimensional harridan, while the histrionic fundamentalism of her sister in religious arms, Kate Cassidy (a superb Kristin Finnegan), would leave the Taliban in the half penny place.

And if it is true that Wargo paints brighter than Friel, the Vatican Fugue and Another Step Nearer to Thee are inspired, this production – before a note is sung – is overwhelmed by the suffocation of the claustrophic stage, with religious iconography left, right and centre.

This isn’t to negate Losers which is much more easier on the ears than Winners – at core a play aping opera – but to posit the possibility that Hanratty’s intention was slightly lost in translation, or perhaps not.

That they are almost cartoonish in their religious fervour and the efficacy of their devotion doesn’t distract from strong performances by Nicholas Morris and Catia Moreso as the unlikely Mr and Mrs Tracy, who never forget that Losers is essentially a comedy in which some scenes are specifically written for laughs.

 

Therese/La Navarraise

Massenet

Singing in the Spiegeltent, Donovan reminded his audience, which didn’t need reminding, that a lot of his songs have women’s names in the titles. Somebody should have told him: ‘so does Massenet.’

And Wexford, over the years, has hosted quite a few of them – Cendrillon and Sapho – for no opera festival  enjoys a strong female lead quite like Wexford, and we’ve been lucky: Virginia, Sapho, Orleanskaya deva, Zaza, with extraordinary performances by exceptional singers: Karen Notare, Giuseppina Piunti, Angela Meade, Elizabeth Futral and, of course, Lada Biriucov.

To this list of outstanding talent we can now add two more names from the 2013 season, soprano Helena Dix (Cristina) and mezzo-soprano and Wexford veteran Nora Sourouzian, both of whom took their operas by the proverbial scruff of the neck, and made them their own.

While Dix arrived with great expectations, Sourouzian came under the radar. Though David Agler is supremely gifted at casting leads, even he must have been surprised by what Sourouzian achieved in this Massenet double bill in two contrasting and hugely challenging parts.

Women in Massenet operas always steal the show, and because of the composer’s empathy for the better sex, female parts are deeply layered, a matrix of fidelity, passion and, often fatefully, honesty.

Sourouzian’s acting is the equal of her singing, and as both the parts of Therese and Anita mirror the descent into societal mayhem, she had to dig deepest to unfurl the sacrifice of one and the madness of the other. By my estimation, she was only off stage for ten minutes for the duration of both operas, which were also gifted by the presence of Philippe Do, Brian Mulligan and Damien Pass.

Taken as a whole, I don’t think I have ever seen as complete a performance at Wexford as Sourouzian, certainly not since Biriucov, or even Notare, but to segue two contrasting roles in one evening was a remarkable and, if you were fortunate to be present on Saturday, frankly miraculous undertaking. In the last scene of Therese, Sourouzian appropriates her death while defiant to the violence that spurred it. She gave us beauty, rapture and madness.

That ability to morph from one to the other as seamless as water, from Revolutionary France to Civil War Spain, transfigured Therese in particular which looked – on paper – as exciting as chess, but Andre Barbe’s magnificent sets – epic and grandiose – and conductor Carlos Izcaray, who brought dash, drive and control to the orchestra, airlifted both the drame musicale and episode lyrique.

Barbe, with subtle use of David’s Marat and portraits of Danton and Robespierre in Therese, and wholesale deployment of Picasso ‘s Guernica in La Navarraise, endowed the stage with visual munificence thus adding to the narrative, as all good set designs should.