Now at the age of 60, Raymond Deane finds himself amongst some of the most loathed composers in Ireland. His work Seachanges, has been the bane of existence for every Leaving Cert student covering the music Group B syllabus. The post-modern work, influenced by, amongst other things, the Galway coast, no doubt is the soundtrack to every former student’s nightmares. However, any preconception of his work as a composer had to left at the door of the NCH this Tuesday evening for the world premiere of his latest work, ‘The Alma Fetish’, produced by Wide Open Opera.
For those of you who know the story of the relationship between artist Oskar Kokoschka and Mahler’s widow Alma will be aware just how obvious a plot it is for an opera, rivalling even the most harrowing of stories. Those who don’t might be surprised to find that after the break-up of the relationship Kokoschka commissioned a life-size doll of his former lover and was seen travelling by carriage or appearing at public events accompanied by the mannequin. However the artist finally beheads the doll at a party, no longer needing it to feed his obsession.
The world premiere of this new opera gets off to a slow start with a fifteen minute delay due to an issue in the woodwind section. After much awkward entertainment in the form of an ad lib interview with Raymond Deane, this concert performance of the opera begins with a thriving orchestra. In the run up to the opening, the opera had received a lot of hype with particular attention being given to the visuals by renowned Irish artist Pauline Bewick, and rightly so. From the onset the audience is treated to powerful images accompanying the libretto projected as a backdrop behind the orchestra.
From the first entrance, each of the soloists live up to their reputations, and although interaction between performers may have been restricted due to the nature of the concert, this doesn’t prevent emotive performances from all. Both baritone Leigh Melrose and soprano Daire Halpin steal the show, showing the audience their ability as performers through their mastering of Deane’s challenging score and understanding of Gavin Kostick’s libretto. The chorus on the other hand doesn’t get off to the same start. Their first performance is slightly lacking however the males manage to redeem themselves with a fantastic contribution during the war scene, imitating marching horses. This standard remains until the end and the chorus as a whole really flourishes in their final scene.
All elements of the work are beautifully put together and the opera reaches a climax during the duet between Melrose and Halpin, in which the letter to the doll-maker is being written. The repetition in the score and juxtaposition of the baritone and soprano voices adds to the drama, with the orchestra working with both soloists to portray the insanity behind the scene. When the doll is finally revealed Kokoschka isn’t the only one disappointed when Megan Kennedy walks on stage. Although Kennedy plays the role of the doll fantastically, her movement on stage is almost a distraction and it would have been far more productive had the performance been a fully-fledged concert performance, particularly when the audience already had Bewick’s visuals to entertain them.
Overall, the opera as a whole and this performance in particular achieves a lot. By presenting the audience with a concert performance Wide Open Opera allow affordable exposure to this fine work. True, the presence of the doll on stage is unnecessary and the chorus is weak to start, but there is very little fault to find here. Kostick not only manages to tell the story perfectly through his strong libretto, but also manages to entertain with his use of rhyme and imagery throughout, whilst Deane’s main themes remains with the listener long after the performance. There is no denying that all are satisfied departing the NCH whether they have just come to see Bewick’s highly anticipated contribution to the evening or were reconnecting with a composer from their pasts.