Sunday, 1 April 2018

Opera Briefs (Dublin, 2018)

Claudio Monteverdi - Il Ballo delle Ingrate
Judith Weir - Scipio’s Dream

Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin - 2018

David Adams, Caitriona McLaughlin, Leah Redmond, Katie O'Donoghue, Matthew Mannion, Ben Escorcio, Robert McAllister, Ana-Maria Acunune, Katie Richardson McCrea, Hannah Traynor

The Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage - 29 March 2018

The pairing of two operas written almost 400 years apart is an intriguing one and neither are by any means an obvious selection for students of the Royal Irish Academy of Music working on a stage production of the programme in collaboration with the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art. You might expect the intention of juxtaposing Monteverdi's Il Ballo delle Ingrate (1608) with Judith Weir's Scipio’s Dream (1991) would be to throw up interesting musical contrasts as well as highlighting how social attitudes have changed over the years, but in reality the subjects of both works display a common social conservatism. In the case of Monteverdi's work, the deeply serious treatment of a tragic subject could be seen to merely reflect the attitudes of the times in which it was written, while Judith Weir's more overt comedy is more obviously critical of similar ideals.

What the two works really have in common however is - somewhat obviously - is that they are being performed to a modern audience, and what they have to communicate to that audience must be the primary consideration of a director. Rather than seek to connect the works thematically, which might only strengthen the less liberal sentiments expressed in them and send out mixed messages, Catriona McLaughlin approaches each of the two short pieces on their own terms. Updating them to a more modern setting, the RIAM/Lir production seeks to remain to the original intentions of both works while at the same time finding a way to explore the relevance they have for a contemporary audience living in Ireland. From that point of view, with that as a starting point but with a little bit of a shift in perspective, the timeless quality of both works and the truths they reveal comes through well.

In the case of Scipio's Dream, the updating of ideas towards a modern perspective has already been made by Judith Weir, since her work is based on Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione, written in 1771 when the composer was 15 years of age. Weir's comic opera was adapted for TV in 1991 and updated into a contemporary office background, where a businessman has to make a decision whether to follow the allegorical paths represented by the goddesses of Fortune versus Constancy. Catriona McLaughlin's production actually returns the work closer to it original story based on Cicero's 'On the Republic' by re-envisioning Scipio as the leader of a Republic state; as Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, whose dilemma is the choice between following the fortune of the UK's Brexit decision or to remain constant to the security offered by remaining in the EU.

The choice is perhaps not realistically one that the Taoiseach has to consider, so it's not as if there's a political point to be made here, but placing him in this position at least makes the allegorical aspect of the work more relatable. And funny, which is a vital part of the charm of this particular work; at least in Weir's version as I'm not sure Pietro Metastasio had laughs in mind when he wrote the libretto. It might be a little heavy-handed and unnecessary for Fortune to hold up a mask of Theresa May, for Constancy to hold up a mask identifying her as Angela Merkel and for the other players to similarly identify their European leader counterparts, but it certainly gets the laughs and engages the audience with the conceit. And perhaps there are a few little political points to be made along the way, even if the Irish angle doesn't really mirror the reality of the personal or political challenges faced by Leo Varadkar.

What is surprising about the work, I found, is that while it is certainly modernised, Weir retains the musical language of Mozart's time for her contemporary adaptation of Scipio's Dream. The enchantments of the goddesses of Constancy and Fortune are therefore represented by seductive arias and vocal ornamentation, which are handled well by Leah Redmond and Katie O'Donoghue. The role of Scipio also has its own vocal challenges that baritone Matthew Mannion capably managed, at the same time displaying good presence and successfully delivering the comic touches that are very much part of the charm of the work. The ensemble singers also impressed as they brought a hard border solution that may not be Scipio's dream, but perhaps the only realistic consequence of putting one's faith in the goddess of Constancy.

Despite the underlying sentiments of Il Ballo delle Ingrate, the dance of the ungrateful women condemned to Hell for refusing to submit to the love of a man, there is also a message in Monteverdi's 400 year old work that is relevant to the times. Rather than place it in an equivalent contemporary setting that would undoubtedly distract from the beauty of the piece and probably be an inadequate response to the complexities of the reality faced by women in the world today, the director allows a little modernised tweaking of the translation of the words of the Madrigal make the relevance a little more 'present', but it's the tragic melancholy tone of the extraordinary music of the work itself that aligns it more closely to the fate of abused women, giving it a haunting quality that clearly resonates with a modern audience.

In common with Scipio's Dream the story relies on allegorical figures of gods and goddesses to raise the subject above the level of personal drama to a mythological and moral dilemma. Poor Venus and Eros (Venere and Amore) are distraught that Cupid's darts are no longer as effective as they once were when women used to accept their fate and obeyed the fortune bestowed upon them by the love and attentions of a man. They bring their complaint to Pluto (Plutone), God of the Underworld, who determines that the women are indeed ungrateful and, although it appears harsh to bring them to a place where there can be no return, they must pay the price for contravening the vital rules of nature.

Pluto, as sung by bass-baritone Robert McAllister is indeed a formidable figure, and in McLaughlin's production the torments that the ungrateful women are subjected to by his demons is indeed degrading and horrific. There's no need for elaborate visions of hell, the demons all wear jackets and ties, sitting around the same Prime Minister's office desk that was used in Scipio's Dream. The women are paraded, mocked, stripped of protective clothing and pawed by Pluto's 'Ombre d'Inferno' minions. Enduring their fate, their closing lamentation becomes less of a warning to other ungrateful women than an anthem for all the women who have suffered at the hands of monsters.

That could be a hard angle to sell in such a short piece were it not for the fact that the work is by Monteverdi and a masterpiece that is more than capable of expressing such sentiments. The RIAM Baroque Orchestra performance of Il Ballo delle Ingrate under the direction of David Adams was simply mesmerising, holding the flow and line of the work beautifully, but more importantly finding the dark melancholic poignancy at the heart of the work. The singing also lifted the work to this level, contrasting the exceptional singing of Robert McAllister's marvellously controlled and resonant Pluto with the almost heavenly chorus of the 'ingrate' at the conclusion, weeping not so much for their own miserable fate as much as in solidarity for the fate of all those other women throughout the ages who have lived in hell of one kind or another.

Links: RIAM, The Lir, Abbey Theatre