Conversations with Joyce
In celebrating the centenary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the past year has witnessed a series of eighteen artistic events as part of the Ulysses 2.2 project, with each event based on a particular episode from the writer’s most famous creation. Old Ghosts, an opera composed by Evangelia Rigaki and set to a libretto by playwright Marina Carr, constitutes the final instalment in this project. The work also marked the first collaboration between the theatre company ANU and Irish National Opera (INO). Taking as its starting point the Penelope episode at the end of the book, the work finished its three-night run last Saturday 4 February in the sumptuous surroundings of the Museum of Literature Ireland.
While the thoughts of Molly Bloom are the subject of the Penelope chapter of Ulysses, Old Ghosts did not actually feature Molly at all. Instead it focused on Joyce himself (sung by tenor Christopher Bowen) and his interactions with three figures – his wife Nora (soprano Jade Phoenix), Homer (bass William Gaunt) and Penelope (mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran). Through Joyce’s conversations with each of these figures throughout the opera, we get a glimpse into some of the possible sources and inspiration for Ulysses.
While this was a brave and ambitious undertaking, it was also a difficult one to transfer into the realm of opera. The main problem was that Rigaki’s music was extremely static and seemed to maintain the same tempo throughout. This meant that when coupled with Carr’s text – which was quite heavy on meaning and oblique references – the character’s interactions tended to come across as rather rigid and forced. For much of the opera they seemed to sing past each other and, even when there was ostensibly a conversation between two characters, the effect was more akin to two monologues happening simultaneously.
In many ways, the approach here was the exact opposite of Rigaki and Carr’s previous INO collaboration, The Gift, which formed part of the 20 Shots of Opera project and was notable for the dynamic and highly charged nature of the music. Here, by contrast, the music couldn’t have been more emotionally neutral. Written for an ensemble of saxophone, harp, cello, double bass and percussion, much of the music consisted of slow wandering lines on the two string instruments with gentle plucked chords on the harp. While it did have its own distinctive colour and reminded one of ancient Greek ritual mixed with hints of Monteverdi, it did little to distinguish the characters from each other and the vocal writing, which was generally quite well shaped, seemed constricted by the unchanging musical background.
Taking advantage of the wonderful setting of Newman House, the action took place in a large drawing room with minimal staging – just a bed and a writing desk – while the music from the orchestra wafted in from an adjacent room. In terms of sound, this didn’t pose a problem and the balance between the orchestra and singers was well maintained by conductor Elaine Kelly. Bowen as Joyce was particularly impressive, especially considering the large amount of music that needed to be memorised. The effective lighting also gave the room an otherworldly atmosphere that was very pleasant to soak up throughout the opera’s 45-minute duration.
Despite the intriguing setting, in the end the idea itself failed to convince and it would have needed a much more graspable libretto and varied music to make it work. Nevertheless, this was an experimental opera and INO’s willingness to collaborate with groups like ANU is something that one can only encourage.
Irish National Opera’s upcoming productions include Don Pasquale (Limerick, 9 February, and Tralee, 11 February), Der Rosenkavalier (5–11 March), Werther (22 April–14 May) and Così fan tutte (19 May–2 June). For further information, visit www.irishnationalopera.ie.
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Published on 8 February 2023
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.