Tuesday 3 October 2017

Dennehy - The Last Hotel (Dublin, 2015)

Donnacha Dennehy - The Last Hotel

Wide Open Opera, Dublin - 2015

Alan Pierson, André de Ridder, Enda Walsh, Robin Adams, Claudia Boyle, Katherine Manley, Mikel Murfi

Sky Arts, 2016

The concept and playing out of the first opera by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh is what you might call situational; which is why it's called The Last Hotel, I guess. It involves only three characters who come to a run-down and quite sinister hotel with some rather unsettling if somewhat vague intentions, plus one non-singing character, a demonic hotel porter.

Sinister and demonic are perhaps the key words here, as there's little that you'll find common or inviting as you try to figure out who these people are, what has brought them together and what they are doing at the hotel. There is very much a 'huis clos' kind of feel to a situation that is quite divorced from any kind of realism, and you do indeed even wonder if the Last Hotel is indeed some kind of waiting room for the after-life where these characters have met up in death.

As it happens, no-one has died yet, or at least none of the three principal characters; I can't say anything for sure about the existential state of the demonic porter who is seen rapidly cleaning up the blood from the last guests, but it's clear that death is not far away. As the Woman introduces herself and makes small-talk conversation about the journey over to the hotel with the Man and his Wife, we find out that death is very much on the agenda.

The exchanges and the interior monologues that each of the three of them express are however rather vague and poetically impressionistic. All of them however are rather nervous, a little bit panicky about what is to take place, and all of them are trying to put a brave face on what they are about to participate in. A rehearsal is proposed and it becomes apparent that the Man and his Wife have agreed to come to the hotel to help the Woman end her life. For reasons that are similarly unclear, but edgily urgent...

If there is an edgy urgency to the situation and a sinister and demonic aspect to what is to transpire, it's conveyed primarily by the driving propulsion of Donnacha Dennehy's distinctive music score. Performed by the terrific Crash Ensemble, Dennehy's music has the percussive energetic chug of Michael Nyman, but supplemented with flute, accordion and electric guitar it is underpinned by a structure and rhythm that has all the cadences, repetitive loops and shifts of Irish traditional music.

It's the music that gives the otherwise fairly obscure and poetic reverie of Enda Walsh's libretto its essential character. The three characters do interact, but it's mostly nervous small-talk that skirts around the purpose of their being at the hotel. They do break out or rather slip inward into more reflective consideration of their condition, but there are no specifics that reveal anything about the circumstances that have brought them together at this point. If it comes together at all, it's very much down to the music keeping up a tone and a momentum.

If the words don't carry much in the way of information or insight, there is at least some expression of character and situation in the writing for the voice. It's a surprisingly lyrical piece and not as recitative heavy as you might expect a contemporary English-language opera to be. Again, I think much of this has to do with the Irish music rhythms that align lyrically to the voice, and the urgent continuity of those rhythms and the tensions that are generated inevitably pushes the voices into the higher registers.

Premiered at the Edinburgh festival, Wide Open Opera's The Last Hotel also ran at the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival (Dennehy's second opera with Enda Walsh The Second Violinist will feature there in the 2017 festival) and it was filmed there at the O'Reilly Theatre for Sky Arts. Originally conducted by André de Ridder, Alan Pierson takes over the direction of the 12-piece Crash Ensemble for the filmed performance.

The film version retains the minimal sets of the stage production for the live performance, but includes filmed cut-aways in and around a hotel when the focus turns on the individuals having their 'moments', giving the opera a little more room to expand outwards without losing any of its intensity. The intensity of the work and the kind of challenges of the singing are taken up well by the cast, with Claudia Boyle the Woman, Robin Adams the Man and Katherine Manley his Wife.

It took a week to get B*Witched's C'est la Vie out of my head.

Links: The Last Hotel, Wide Open Opera