Andrew Synnott - Dubliners
Opera Theatre Company, Wexford Opera Festival, 2017
Andrew Synnott, Annabelle Comyn, Emma Nash, Anna Jeffers, Andrew Gavin, David Howes, Peter O' Donohue, Cormac Lawlor
Clayton White's Hotel, Wexford - 1 November 2017
The two short stories that Andrew Synnott chooses from James Joyce's Dubliners don't strike you as being the sort of thing that operas are made of, but then again I'm sure that it would have been hard to imagine The Dead from the same short story collection being adapted into a feature film. Composer Andrew Synnott and librettist Arthur Riordan however succeed with Counterparts and The Boarding House in exactly the same way that John Huston did with The Dead; they give due attention to the fact that the forces that exist in and around the characters are far more important than the narrative itself.
These are more than just stories to be told, and they are more than just depictions of Dublin life at a certain, albeit significant time in Ireland's history at the beginning of the 20th century. There are all kinds of social and political undercurrents running around in 1914, with the Great War just around the corner and with the Republican Easter Rising not far away, but the idea of identity and change, of the times mirroring a significant moment in individuals' lives can also be found in Dubliners.
In Counterparts and The Boarding House (and indeed The Dead), events come to a point where there is no return to the past. The characters find themselves obliged to reassess their lives and try to assert some kind of authority over their own destiny, only to find that there are external forces that are beyond their ability to control or influence. The stories that make up Synnott's two short Dubliners operas are not connected and the tone and the revelations reached in each is markedly different, but Synnott's brilliantly brings out the respective commonalities, differences and qualities that lie at the heart of both works.
There's an almost impressionistic flow to both pieces, but in Counterparts it's one that is determined by the alcoholic haze and rush of emotions that course through the day of a Dublin office clerk. Farrington has already nipped out for a few quick ones during his breaks and all he can think about is getting back out to the warm happy glow of being in a pub with his friends. There are however all kinds of competing forces at work that prevent Farrington from mastering his situation, and not just in the workplace where his boss is putting pressure on him to urgently to copy documents for a contract.
Alcohol is a force, desire is a force, conceit is a force, masculinity is a force and all of them give Farrington a misplaced sense of self-worth. His bragging to his friends of his witty put-down of his boss when he asks him if he takes him for a fool ("I don't think that's a fair question to put to me") only carries so much weight, and as his money runs out, the alcohol buzz wears off and Farrington receives a few injuries to his pride, so too does his sense of humour. None of his efforts have brought him any satisfaction, and when he returns home he exerts his dwindling sense of control and authority by beating one of his children.
It's hardly the stuff of opera, but Synnott on piano with a string quartet, gives this narrative a wonderful coherence and a feeling for mood, but it only really holds together when it is played alongside and contrasted with The Boarding House. It's a story that seems even less likely to work on the stage, but Synnott's response to that is to just be even more creative with rhythms, with the overlaying of vocal lines and with a construction that wonderfully leap-frogs from one character focus to the next.
It even starts with a narrator, Jack Mooney, who lets it be known that the moment of truth is dawning for one of the guests at his mother's boarding house. Bob Doran has been carrying on with Polly who works there, and it appears that her mother Mrs Mooney has permitted the liberty to be taken or at least turned a blind eye to it; but in reality she has just been biding her time. Doran's fate is sealed before the opera even starts, but he just hasn't realised it yet. He thinks he still has a say in the outcome, but when the summons comes from Mrs Mooney, his bachelor days are effectively numbered.
The forces he has to contend with are brute force (Jack Mooney), the bonds of family, the ideas of right and wrong that are ingrained in this society by religion, and with it the irrefutable certainty that one has to pay for one's sins. The personal wishes of the individual are rendered insignificant in the face of such huge social and cultural forces, and the inevitability with which they pile up on Bob Doran, as well as the inherent humour that lies in the situation, are brilliantly brought out in this wonderfully constructed opera version of the story.
The flow of words and impressions, the flow from one character's perspective to another is brilliantly brought out in the flow of the musical score that Andrew Synnott leads from piano, but this is more than just musical accompaniment and more than an exercise in craft. Between the music, the words and the staging, the operas bring out the deeper essence and universality of these timeless stories. The gorgeous set designs by Paul O'Mahony who also worked on the OTC's gorgeous Acis and Galatea (there's a man who knows his pubs!) and Joan O'Clery's costumes retain something of the period, but Annabelle Comyn's direction ensures that the situations, experiences and the nature of the characters remains recognisable and relevant, and not just to early twentieth century "Dubliners".
The complementary nature of Counterparts and The Boarding House can also be found in the lyrical treatment and Synnott and Riordan have created wonderfully lyrical and poetic vocal lines with rhyming couplets for both pieces. Using the same cast members for the two short operas allows further connections to be drawn; not so much in characters as in their predicaments and expression of them. Cormac Lawlor however only has a singing role in Counterparts as Farrington, but it's one that evidently carries the whole tone of the piece and his timing and delivery of each of the varied moods the alcoholic clerk goes through is superb. The Boarding House has a larger number of leads from Emma Nash's Polly, Anna Jeffers's Mrs Mooney, Andrew Gavin's Bob Doran and David Howes's Jack, who all impress on an individual level, as well as giving wonderfully complementary performances.
Premiered at the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre Company's production of Andrew Synnott's Dubliners has a further three performances at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin from the 9 - 11th November 2078, but I would hope and expect that this lyrical, thoughtful and entertaining work will have a longer life beyond its initial run.
Links: Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Theatre Company