Archive for Orla Boylan

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (`Resurrection’) at the National Concert Hall, Dublin

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening performance of the new season of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. As well as being the first concert of the season, it was also my first ever visit to the National Concert Hall. To mark the occasion we were in the presence of the Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D Higgins, and his wife Sabena. By `occasion’ I of course mean the first concert of the season, rather than my first visit to the NCH. After the concert the audience were all treated to a glass of Prosecco on the house too!

I’ve done quite a few reviews from St David’s Hall in Cardiff over the years, so before writing about the music I thought I’d compare the venues a little. The National Concert Hall was built in 1865 and soon after its construction it was converted into the main building of University College Dublin. It was converted to a concert venue when UCD moved out of the city centre, and fully re-opened in 1981. It is a bit smaller than St David’s – capacity 1200, compared with 2000 – and does not have such a fine acoustic, but it is a very nice venue with a distinctive and decidedly more intimate vibe all of its own. I had a seat in the centre stalls, which cost me €40, which is about the same as one would expect to pay in Cardiff.

The NCH is situated close to St Stephen’s Green, which is a 15 minute walk from Pearse Station or a 30 minute walk from Connolly (both of which are served by trains from Maynooth). The weather was pleasant yesterday evening so I walked rather than taking the bus or Luas from Connolly. I passed a number of inviting hostelries on the way but resisted the temptation to stop for a pint in favour of a glass of wine in the NCH bar before the performance.

Anyway, last night’s curtain-raiser involved just one piece – but what a piece! – Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). The choir in this case was the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir. At various points trumpets and/or French horns moved offstage into the wings and, for the finale, into the gallery beside the choir.

About two years ago I blogged about the first performance I had ever heard of the same work. Hearing it again in a different environment in no way diminished its impact.

Stunning though the finale undoubtedly was, I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement, through the joyously dancing second that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, and the fourth which is built around a setting of one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Jennifer Johnson (standing in wonderfully for Patricia Bardon, who was unfortunately indisposed). Jennifer Johnson has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was very well performed, but as I suspect is always the case in performances of this work, it was the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Orla Boylan – that packs the strongest emotional punch.

The massed ranks of the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir (all 160 of them) weren’t called upon until this final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they made an immediate impact. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax the hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The Choir, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing mit höchster Kraft, combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the fine concert organ of the NCH to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement:

The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.

Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to conductor Robert Trevino, the soloists, choir and all the musicians for a memorable concert. On my way out after the Prosecco I picked up the brochure for the forthcoming season by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, which runs until next May. I won’t be attend all the Friday-night concerts, but I will try to make as many as I can of the ones that don’t involve harpsichords.

Update: I hadn’t realised that the concert was actually broadcast on TV and then put on YouTube; here is a video of the whole thing:

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Ariadne auf Naxos

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 8, 2010 by telescoper

There are three operas in the current season from Welsh National Opera, and last night I went to see the final one of the set,   a revival of their 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It seems I saved the best until last! It was a wonderful evening, beautifully sung and imaginatively staged.

It’s a strange opera, consisting of two acts. The first is a prologue, set backstage during the preparations for  a musical performance commissioned by the “wealthiest man in Vienna”, a character who never actually makes an appearance but who communicates with the others through his Major-Domo (a speaking role, played by Eric Roberts).  The centrepiece of the performance is to be a new opera, the tragedy of Ariadne on the Island of Naxos, written by a gifted young composer (played in male drag by the lovely Sarah Connolly). Afraid that the opera might bore his guests, the patron decides to liven up the performance by adding a musical comedy act, in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and a firework display. While the opera singers argue with assorted clowns and grotesques of the rival Harlequinade about who should perform first, news comes down from on high that in order that the fireworks are not delayed, instead of performing one after the other, the two performances will be merged. The upshot of this is that instead of being marooned on a desert island with only three nymphs for company, the lovelorn Ariadne has to put up with the presence of the entire cast of a comic burlesque.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, this is a comedy. It’s very German, of course, in the sense that it’s not all that funny really, but the set up does pay off in the second act, wherein the comedy and tragedy (or, more precisely, an Opera Buffa and an Opera Seria) are played together. It’s a bit like the “play-within-a-play” in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

First Ariadne (played by Orla Boylan) appears on her island, singing of her desire for death after the loss of her beloved Theseus. Then the clowns interrupt the performance and try to cheer her up, by suggesting she finds another man. Then the comics take over the show entirely, at least for a while. Finally Ariadne reappears and is met by Bacchus, the god of wine, who brings much-needed consolation. The two sing a rapturous duet and eventually ascend to heaven, in a style reminiscent of Close Encounters, while the clowns look on from the wings.

It’s all a bit daft, of course, but the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is unexpectedly moving. It works largely because of the sheer beauty of Strauss’ music, especially in the second act. People who don’t like opera probably don’t understand how it’s possibly to fall into such a stylised form of drama in which people sing to each other rather than speak, but somehow – at least for me – that’s what happens. Something draws you into the drama and you forget the artificiality of the performance. That it works in this opera is especially surprising because it’s  a second-order opera; the audience knows it’s an opera, but within the opera there’s another opera. Nevertheless, the sensuously romantic score still pulls you in, especially in the scenes with Ariadne. Strauss was always a superb writer for the female voice, and this opera is no exception.

Last night’s performance was lovely, with Sarah Connolly and   Orla Boylan both oustanding. Boyland in particular was simply superb, a true dramatic soprano with a voice of great lyrical beauty as well as  thrilling power when needed. I was expecting Sarah Connolly to be great, and she didn’t disappoint at all, but Orla Boylan was even better. 10/10.

The only part I didn’t like was the Wig-Maker, a crude gay stereotype mincing ostentatiously around the stage during the Prologue. Very naff.

Oh, and Eric Roberts as the Major-Domo seemed to get a bit confused in a couple of places and repeated his lines, sending the surtitle machine into chaos for a bit. Even though the performance was in German I didn’t really look at the surtitles. When you wear varifocals it’s quite difficult to read them without missing out on what’s happening on stage.

These were only minor blemishes, however, and overall it was a wonderful evening. I’ll add a word for the orchestra too, which played beautifully under the baton of Lothar Koenigs.

There’s only one other performance of this in Cardiff, tomorrow night (Saturday 9th October). Do go and see it if you can!


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