The Kiss of a Witch
The world premiere of Raymond Deane’s fourth opera Vagabones was given at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght last Friday night in a production by Opera Collective Ireland that kicked off a nationwide tour that will bring the opera to Dundalk, Youghal and Waterford this week. Based on the radio play Trespasses by the acclaimed Irish writer Emma Donoghue, it tells the story of a witch trial held in Youghal, County Cork, in the year 1661 – one of the very few witch trials ever held in Ireland.
Donoghue’s play examines the power dynamics of an unequal society under the grip of a collective hysteria that inevitably ends up scapegoating its weakest members. In this case the victim is Florence Newton, an old unmarried woman falsely accused of witchcraft by Mary Longdon, maid to the town’s bailiff John Pyne whom she intends to marry. Pyne has manipulated Mary into accusing Florence of bewitching her after she gave her ‘the kiss of goodwill’ which Mary believes is the cause of her epileptic fits. Through a series of quack trials administered by the odious faith-healer Valentine Greatrakes, Florence’s will is eventually broken and she falsely confesses to witchcraft rather than face a further drowning test. However, her confession unsurprisingly fails to stop Mary’s fits and after another episode, Pyne abandons her, claiming he can’t risk passing on ‘the taint’ to his children. Mary is no Abigail Williams of the Salem Witch trials and at the play’s conclusion she appears almost as much a victim as Florence, grappling with the guilt of what she has done and realising that the evil presence in the town was of her own making.
Renate Debrun’s libretto trimmed Donoghue’s play into thirteen short scenes bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue that followed a fairly classic dramatic arc but left a considerable amount of dialogue to be traversed. This was shaped by Deane into angular but never aimless vocal lines that perfectly captured the rhythm of Donoghue’s dialogue. The composer’s handling of the dramatic pacing was similarly assured, particularly in the series of intensifying scenes in Act III that dissipated into Mary’s desolate epilogue. Part of the reason for the strength of their impact was Deane’s impressive ability to set not only words but also the physical actions of the characters; his intricate writing for the ensemble underscored much of the unsung dramatic movement without ever descending into cliché or clumsy word painting. It may not be the most original style of vocal writing in contemporary opera but there is no other Irish composer as adept at this flexible, expressionistic approach and throughout the entire production the music and the singers seemed to move perfectly in sync with one another. The highlight of this for me was Mary’s epileptic fit in Act III when her shaking is mirrored by rapid tremolandi dialogue between the different groupings of the ensemble. Her desperate plight after this – when John Pyne abandons the prospect of marriage believing her to be afflicted by the witch’s curse – was beautifully rendered by the flutter-tongued anguish of a tin whistle, a frequently maligned instrument.
Unlike Deane’s previous opera The Alma Fetish, the score was largely free from quotation or parody with only the inclusion of an accordion, tin whistle and harp providing a sense of place amidst a more abstract musical language. However, the restless gestural surface was carried over from the previous opera and at times it was hard not to feel that this was a chamber reduction of a score for a much larger ensemble. It is testament to Deane’s skill as an orchestrator that he managed to produce such a range of timbral combinations with such a small ensemble and one could only imagine the potential force of the music with a full orchestra. The Crash Ensemble under the direction of Sinéad Hayes gave a terrific performance in the bone-dry acoustics of the Civic Theatre.
While Deane’s score was certainly varied, the harmonic colour remained firmly tilted towards the darker shades of the spectrum and although there were plenty of climaxes, there was no real sense of catharsis and scarcely a let up in the intense concentration. The music was shorn of any lyrical warmth despite the fact that there were numerous moments where perhaps the music could have provoked a more emotional response; the Mayor’s realisation that the trial is a farce, for example, or even Mary’s reflection at the opera’s conclusion which remained one of desolate coldness with a vocal line that was peppered with tritones. This is not to say it needed a Puccini-style aria but the unremitting bleakness did perhaps limit our capacity to fully empathise with the characters as individuals, something we did more through an awareness of their hopeless predicament than through a pathos evoked by the music itself. On the other hand, the density of the music perfectly fitted with the suffocating atmosphere of the witch trial and the cumulative impact of the gradually building tension meant that it was impossible not to leave the theatre with a deep impression.
Confidence and accuracy
The young singers in this OCI production, directed by Ben Barnes, negotiated the challenges of the score with a confidence and accuracy that was all the more impressive given that this was hardly the most experienced cast ever assembled for an Irish opera. As Florence Newton – by far the most complex character in the opera – Carolyn Holt managed to negotiate the difficult challenge of this role, switching from moments of reflection with her young cellmate Dónal – sung by the excellent Kelli-Ann Masterson – to electric altercations with Rory Dunne as the mendacious Greatrakes. Playing the one unambiguously evil character in the opera, Dunne’s booming voice and big stage presence made him well cast in this role. Sarah Power was similarly well cast as Mary Longdon and her sensitive voice managed to convey her character’s pathetic weakness. There was no weak member amongst the cast and it was an indication of their collective stamina that the risky decision to perform the whole opera straight through without an interval paid off handsomely.
This production reached a very high standard in many respects and clearly validated OCI’s policy of exclusively casting young Irish singers in the major roles. For Deane, Vagabones marks another successful operatic venture and along with The Alma Fetish, can be considered one of the more convincing experiments in the recent boom of Irish operatic production.
Vagabones will be in An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk, tonight (Tuesday 10 September), then St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Youghal (Thursday 12 September), and Theatre Royal, Waterford (Friday 13 September). For further details and booking, visit www.operacollectiveireland.com/production/vagabones.
Published on 10 September 2019
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.