Irish National Opera at Project Arts Centre (Cube) on 29 September 2023

‘Breathwork’ begins in near silence, broken only by barely audible whisperings. Intimate and immersive, there’s only space for an audience of eleven, seated around a circle in hazy half-light, as the three singers – three ‘Questioners’: Andrew Gavin, Michelle O’Rourke, and Kelli-Ann Masterson – begin their inter-weaving twists of harmony. There is a sense of gathering around a shared focus, the mood both timeless and post-religious, complete with abstractly flowing costumes. Some phrases – “Do not drink from this well. It is poisoned. Lethal” – circle repeatedly, suggesting the possibility of ritual. A quoted seventeenth-century account of decay and contagion adds to the sense of anthropocenic end-times.

Kelli-Ann Masterson and Michelle O’Rourke

For all the gloom, however, this is a serene and beautiful work. The well-matched voices, singing cleanly tonal material, are supplemented by pre-recorded tracks of themselves, along with those of instruments (strings and brass), antiphonal effects adding to the sense of spatial distance. The choral style evokes more the madrigalian experiments of the 1600s than a scene of music drama, with the texture of atmosphere and sound creating a shared moment, a dreamlike sense of stillness, passing, and remembrance.

Presented as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, this is a companion work to a larger composition (entitled ‘Hold Your Breath’, commissioned by Bregenz Festival, Austria). ‘Breathwork’ suggests a point of stasis, reflecting both a haunted past and an uncertain future. Its compressed structure also harks back to the lockdown ‘20 Shots of Opera’, also produced by Irish National Opera, and from which composer Éna Brennan indirectly went on to develop this work. As an experiment in colour, mood, and movement, ‘Breathwork’ offers a delicate vision, and it will be interesting to see it grow.

Éna Brennan: Breathwork; text by David Pountney
Produced by Irish National Opera
Director: John McIlduff; Set/Costume Designer: Sabine Dargent; Lighting Designer: Alan Mooney; Music Director: Karen Ní Bhroin
Cast: Andrew Gavin (Questioner 1); Michelle O’Rourke (Questioner 2); Kelli-Ann Masterson (Questioner 3)
Ensemble: Sarah Sew (violin); Brian O’Kane (cello); Eric Castillo Mora (trumpet); Ross Lyness (trombone)

Photography by Pat Redmond

Kelli-Ann Masterson, Andrew Gavin, Michelle O’Rourke