Published on June 6th, 2010 | by pluincee1
Loughcrew Opera: Event
Expectations can be a terrible thing, especially when they’re not met. After my interview with Niall Morris a couple of weeks ago, I had huge expectations of what Loughcrew Garden Opera would be. From arrival to departure, it was an incredibly pleasurable experience which exceeded all of them.
Though the location is a little hard to find, from about 10 miles out handpainted Opera This Way signs lead the way through winding county Meath byways, making sure patrons don’t get lost on their way to the afternoon picnicking. The gardens at Loughcrew provide a superb backdrop for the event, with the area used for opera & picnics decorated in accordance with the opera’s period (in this year’s case, the New York city skyline, well-to-do socialite couples, and vintage cars made out of wood adorned the surrounds). For the more adventurous attendees, there’s also an Alice in Wonderland inspired walk, featuring sculptures by Anne Meldon Hugh.
Pre-opera entertainment was provided by The Bugle Babes (not – as my companion suspected – a brass group, but rather a 1940s crooning trio). Unfortunately, the Babes are accompanied digitally, rather than by a band, but this minor detail did not hugely detract from their dulcet tones which carried across the gardens, thanks to the stillness of the wind.
Their two sets ensured all attendees were very much in the mid-20th Century mood by the time the bell was rung and we took our seats.
A wonderful production of La Traviata, which translated perfectly to 1950s New York, was the real highlight of the evening (and, of course, the point of the entire endeavour). Though the accompanying ensemble had been ‘indisposed’, Mairead Hurley stepped up to the plate and seamlessly accompanied the entire opera. Though I felt she was a little heavy handed on the keyboard at times, this may just have been due to her proximity to our seats, especially when the singers were facing away from us, as happened regularly, due to the centrality of the stage.
Claudia Boyle, as promised by director Niall Morris, played the perfect Violetta. A subtle blend of vulnerability and confidence, her acting was beyond reproach, and her voice carried wonderfully throughout the tent. This prima donna will go far in opera and, should you get the opportunity to hear her perform, you should jump at it!
In my opinion Dwayne Jones looked a little old for the role of Alfredo, especially as his ‘contemporaries’ (Gastone , played by Cian Elliott and Douphol, played by Nathan Morrison) looked much younger than him. In spite of this, the on-stage chemistry between him and Claudia at times nearly set the tent alight, and made the opera more than just players on a stage.
The rest of the supporting cast worked wonderfully together, both on stage and in the blend of voices. Often with an opera which requires so much ensemble singing as La Traviata, one voice wins out over the others. In this production, however, whether because each singer has a different orientation towards the concentric audience rings or because they just mesh that well, no one voice overpowers the others at any point.
The most disappointing aspect of this day out was the audience. As it’s relatively small, the venue calls for absolute respect of the performers and the other attendees, which was not something Loughcrew enjoyed. There was a constant hum of conversation, which became more pronounced during quieter moments, and detracted greatly from the performance. One man behind me got quite upset by this and approached a few of the guilty during the interval which did lead to a more focused second half, though the talking was never fully eradicated.
Though the tent didn’t allow for many lighting or special effects, Niall Morris designed a wonderfully engrossing and versatile set. The coffee table from scene 1 is morphed into a bathtub for scene two, with pink bubbles being emulated by cut up sponges, which froth over the sides as Violetta sinks into the water. As she reached the climax of Sempre Libera (‘Always Free’) at the end of the act, Boyle arose from the tub (which she had entered in a towel), wearing only a skin-toned body-suit strategically covered by rose petals. The first half of the opera (which, rather than the traditional interval-between-each-act setup, was split in two, the interval occurring after Act 2, Scene 1) was also accompanied by live birdsong from the surrounding gardens – a wonderful, unplanned touch.
As the natural light fades, lighting the stage becomes more manageable, and in the final act (set in Violetta’s meagre bedroom) a single lightbulb hanging from the tent’s apex provides appropriate (and ample) illumination.
The intimacy of the venue also adds to the experience. There are only 6 rows of chairs around the stage, and the players have to travel through the audience every time they take the stage, ensuring the audience really feels part of the action unfolding. This almost-magical drawing-in was most evident when Violetta sang Addio del passato (‘So Closes my Sad Story’) and the audience, while inclined to applaud her impassioned performance, did so most sombrely, reflecting the empathy they felt for the character who was on her deathbed.
As previously mentioned, the gates of the gardens open at about 4pm, to allow for setting up of (and – for some – indulgement in) picnics. Though if you arrive late, or aren’t particularly hungry before the performance, you can just hold off til the hour-long interval to enjoy a twilight meal.
Being in its 11th year, it’s no surprise that Loughcrew Garden Opera has ‘regulars’ – those people who can be heard saying things like “We’re creatures of habit, we like our spot”, as they set up gazebos and tables laid with silverware and crystal, candelabras. Of course, no need to be wholly intimidated by these veterans – there are also quite a few rug-and-basket picnics dotted about the lawn (though if sitting on grass isn’t your style, you can of course borrow a table and chairs from the organisers).
The Loughcrew Garden Opera is definitely a highlight in the Irish operatic calendar. Though this was my first experience of it, I will certainly be returning, and I hope that it becomes as big as current artistic director Niall Morris envisions, with the festival extending over a number of weeks, involving multiple operas. Bravissima and Bravo to all involved.