Wexford Festival Opera 2017 Review – The Dubliners: An Exciting Double Bill That Highlights Irish Turmoil

(Credit: Wexford Festival Opera)

In 1914, James Joyce’s “The Dubliners” was published, in which he penned a number of portraits of lower-middle/middle class Dublin folk. The book painted a picture of Dublin as inward looking, parochial city, in which its people’s horizons were very low, in which they were at the mercy of the church, corruption, and their own and other people’s prejudice. They gamble, they drink, they die. The people are stuck, with no way out, going round in circles, never moving forward. It was not a flattering picture, although it was devastatingly accurate. Today, “The Dubliners” is a seminal part of Ireland’s literary heritage, so it is fitting that it has been made into an opera. Or at least part of it has. Andrew Synnott and his librettist, Arthur Riordan, have taken two stories from Joyce’s book, “Counterparts” and “The Boarding House” and created a chamber opera, orchestrated for a string quartet and piano, lasting about 65 minutes.

The Counterparts

Farrington is a clerk, with a bit of a drink problem, who after a day’s work enjoys spending the evening burning off his frustrations in the pub. On this particular day, Farrington has had a couple of confrontations with his boss, and short of money pawns his watch so he can get drunk with his friends. The talk in the pub is of his “triumph” at work, having answered his boss back. For a few minutes he is the one in-charge. After a few drinks he notices a nice-looking girl, who fails to respond, increasing his feelings of frustration. After a few more drinks, and then a few more, he becomes involved in a contest of strength with an Englishman, and loses. His frustrations increase further and are compounded as his money starts to run out. Being married and having no money, he has to leave as all his friends go on to another pub. When he returns home, overwhelmed by his frustrations and very drunk, he gives his son a beating.

Synott’s music is easily accessible, but with jagged edges and many short phrases, highlighting Farrington’s growing frustration. It is not monotonously tied to him personally, however, and is also used to create the general mood of the moment. In the pub, for example, Synnott creates a short drunken melody to set the scene.

Lasting around 30 minutes, the short work covers a lot of ground, and thanks to Riordan’s libretto and Synnott’s music does so in an effective and entertaining way. Credit must also go to the set designer, Paul O’Mahoney, who created a magnificently adaptable and convincing set. The background is a white tiled wall, with a clock in the centre, marking the slow passage of time. A central desk for the owner of the office, Mr Alleyne, and a group of smaller desks with clerks busily typing away. On either side there is a glass case, full of bottles, that when the desks are shifted into less rigid position creates the pub scene.

The piece, directed by Annabelle Comyn, really managed to get to the heart of the work, and she produced an engrossing piece of theatre, in which Farrington’s frustration were made painfully real. The cast, which was comprised of six home grown Irish singers, included Cormac Lawlor as Farrington, Andrew Gavin as Alleyne, David Howes as Flynn, Peter O’Donohue as Higgins, Anna Jeffers as Weathers and Emma Nash as Mrs Delcour/Barmaid/Tom, all of whom put in enthusiastic and impressive performances, acting and singing their parts convincingly. However, Lawlor’s portrayal of Farrington stood out, and not just because he was the central character; his portrayal was subtly nuanced, to a degree that one could readily sympathize with his situation. Not an easy thing to elicit for a character that gets drunk and beats his son.

The Boarding House

Mr. Doran is a guest at Mrs Mooney’s boarding house, which hosts long-term stays for people working in Dublin. Over a number of weeks, Doran becomes friendly with the landlady’s daughter, Polly, who is pleased with the attention. The landlady’s son, Jack, notices what is happening, but is content in the knowledge that his mother will ensure that Doran will do the “honorable thing.” His mother, also notices, but being a wily old bird, she keeps quiet until the time is right, then pounces. Aided by her son, who is “good with his mits,” she bullies Doran into doing the “honorable thing,” not necessarily to the delight of Polly, who has mixed feelings.

Whereas “Counterparts” stayed fairly close to the Joyce original in all respects, “The Boarding House” did veer away from the original tale. The role of Jack, in particular was enlarged and the ending was more ambiguous, with Polly seeming to hold mixed feelings over the forthcoming marriage. Nevertheless, it remained true to the spirit of Joyce’s original.

For this short work, lasting just over 30 minutes, Synnott composed music which contained short ariosos, aimed at reflecting the inner conflicts of the participants. Again the music was easily accessible, but on this occasion contained some lighter moments, which reflected the work’s humorous side.

The set was an adaptation of the set used for “Counterparts”, and really was just one long table, around which everything took place. In an amusing aside, large joints of meat were hung up in the glass cases which stood at the back of the set, representing what was happening to Doran. Although on the surface a lot less was happening in this piece it was, in fact, far more nuanced in its construction, than “Counterparts” possessing a dark yet amusing overlay, especially in Jack’s treatment of Doran, whom he seems to enjoy threatening. Moreover, it is open to far more interpretations than “Counterparts”, in which the focus on Farrington’s frustration is clear and unambiguous.

Comyn again managed to direct a fine reading of the piece, balancing the miserable situation into which Doran and Polly have been maneuvered and trapped, with the amusing elements that ran through the work. Moreover, we were again treated to some wonderful performances from the cast, which was the same six singers as in “Counterparts.” This time it was Nash’s Polly, Jeffers’ Mrs. Mooney and Howes’ Jack that stood out. All had fairly large parts and brought real depth to the characterization of their roles.

Synnott’s “The Dubliners” was real joy to experience and a milestone for Wexford Festival Opera, being the first performance of an opera written by a living Irishman to be performed at the festival.

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