Monday, 9 September 2019

Deane - Vagabones (Dublin, 2019)

Raymond Deane - Vagabones

Opera Collective Ireland, 2019

Sinéad Hayes, Ben Barnes, Crash Ensemble, Rory Dunne, Carolyn Holt, Kelli-Ann Masterson, Sarah Power, Rory Musgrave, Ross Scanlon, Fionn Ó hAlmhain

The Civic Theatre, Tallaght - 6 September 2019

Do I detect a certain amount of revived hostility towards the English in recent new Irish opera works? It's not hard to note a growing frustration bordering on disbelief at the handling of Brexit in the UK and the serious collateral damage that this English vanity project might inflict on the people and the economy of Ireland. Old grudges haven't been forgotten, the wounds run deep and it looks like they might be coming back to the surface.

Another new Irish opera premiered in Dublin just a few weeks ago. Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger dealt with the Irish Famine, and while its focus was on the suffering of the ordinary people, taking the perspective from historical accounts and the roots of suffering in traditional Irish music, it was made clear in the contemporary interviews with academics that it's a historical accepted that the English were certainly not blameless for the severity of the situation. As well as continuing to export grain from Ireland during the famine, it's clear that there was a general indifference to the suffering of the Irish people in favour of a hands-off approach to non-intervention in market forces that contributed to the severity of the resulting famine.

Showing that Irish opera seems to be going through a rich phase at the moment, it's hard not to see similar political undercurrents and contemporary resonance in Opera Collective Ireland's commission of Raymond Deane's new opera Vagabones. Whether it is indeed in reaction to contemporary events, Brexit and border issues being revived by the English is probably too early to say, but it's interesting that Deane also chooses to delve far back into Irish history to another episode where a sense of English entitlement and ruling superiority can be seen as being responsible for the oppression of the Irish way of life in the sowing of hatred and suspicion.

Based on the play 'Trespasses' written in the mid-1990s by Emma Donoghue, Vagabones dates back long enough before the current fiasco and cause of divisions, but it also derives in part from the writer's experience of being Irish and living in England in the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. It's based on an account of a witch trial of Florence Newton, which took place in Youghal in Co. Cork in 1661, one of the few witch trails that took place in Ireland. Perhaps, if Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' is anything to go by, the accusation made against Florence Newton is inspired by jealousy more than any deeper political intent by Mary Longdon, a maid of English origin. Afraid that she won't be able to marry her master John Pyne because she suffers from epileptic fits, Mary blames them on the curse of old Irish woman, accusing her of being a witch.

Ben Barnes's direction of Opera Collective Ireland's world premiere production of Vagabones keeps to the 17th century period setting and doesn't set about introducing any modernisms or revisionism, or indeed anything that would point to any contemporary allegorical or political element. The locations are all based in and around Florence's prison cell and her being brought to trial, those scenes contrasted with the finery of the English landlords and ruling authorities. The sense of injustice is strong, heightened by entitlement of the authorities that even if they know they are wrong they must be seen to be right. Sharing a cell with Donal a young boy jailed for a minor theft, there is a sense of the poor being made to pay for the indulgences of the rich. In the hierarchy here, even an English maid is more important than an indigenous Irish person.

If the historical subject matter and treatment of Irish matters in their new opera works suggests a common purpose when seen in close proximity, Raymond Deane comes from a very different musical background to Donnacha Dennehy. Deane, who studied composition under Stockhausen in Cologne, is more from the European modernist tradition open to experimentation, whereas Dennehy has a strong connection to the peculiarities of Irish trad for rhythm and sensibility and a foot in American minimalism. There are no obvious Irish musical references in Vagabones, although there is some use of accordion and harp, but if there are similarities between Dennehy's The Hunger and Dean's Vagabones it's probably highlighted by in the use of the Crash Ensemble and a similar scale of chamber orchestration, with an ensemble of 13 musicians conducted by Sinéad Hayes.

Deane's music and his development of Vagabones from a play gives the work a more traditional dramatic character with nothing overtly experimental. Deane does develop a technique here, creating a unique voice for each of the six main characters by superimposing scales on a pitch structure to develop a unique voice for each of the characters. Whether that's evident or not, it at least gives the something with which to establish a sense of character and personality. The scoring certainly has mood and impact, the music appropriate in scale and delivery for the intimacy of the subject, supporting the drama and letting its undercurrents come through.

The singing performances are all very good, inevitably somewhat Sprechgesang and traditionally dramatic. It's delivered as such with nothing unconventional or experimental here, and no unnecessary flourishes. Vagabones is a smaller scale chamber work and it might not be particularly ambitious in staging or conception, but it certainly finds an intriguing subject that works well on its own terms as a drama and even in a wider context, presents a interesting bigger picture of where contemporary Irish opera and maybe even Ireland is at the moment.

Links: Opera Collective Ireland