Opera and Dance Music from the Poly-Doyle

Roger Doyle

Opera and Dance Music from the Poly-Doyle

Brendan Finan reviews two recordings from the diverse musical world of Roger Doyle – his 2018 'Heresy' opera and a forthcoming release of new pieces based on the same work.

For a composer who has spent so much of his career working with the theatre, it’s hard to believe Roger Doyle’s first opera has only emerged this decade. Heresy (a title so heavy it almost implies an exclamation mark) premiered at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, in 2016, and was broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM almost a year later. The album was released earlier this year, although with two casts performing and a long explanatory note on which voices appear where, there’s a sense of a somewhat troubled album production. Most notably, Morgan Crowley, who sings the lead part of Giordano Bruno, also performs as Bruno’s enemy, Cardinal Bellarmine, who represents the leadership of the Catholic Church.

Bruno was a polymath and, as far as I know, the first advocate of the hypothesis that multiple realities exist simultaneously, so it’s appropriate that Doyle invokes a number of styles for the opera, from the spare, quiet solo piano line that opens the overture to Act One, to the dissonant, ambient float of the coda, as Bruno drifts through space, to the maybe-too-on-the-nose ‘The Trial’, with representatives of the Catholic Church using a nasal sprechstimme over jerky percussive sound.

The vocal melodies are often built on long repetitions of a single note, resembling the bald ritual of a Philip Glass opera. This begins to wear a little thin by the end of the first act, an effect not helped by the libretto by Jocelyn Clarke and Eric Fraad, which provides a scattershot collection of real and imagined scenes from Bruno’s life – in the courts of Henry III (also performed by Crowley) and Elizabeth I (soprano Daire Halpin), at his writing desk, and in his imagination. The music is so slow-moving, the melodies so predictable, that the numbered SceneLinks provide breaks of, rather than from, momentum. There are moments of beauty in words and in music, the song ‘There Are Countless Suns’, performed by girl soprano Aimee Banks as the boy Bruno, best among them. But it’s not enough.

Second act
Everything, even the libretto, works better in the second act, which centres on Bruno’s trial for heresy and execution. The lyrics here are sometimes violent, sometimes even purple (‘You’re a lying pimp,’ Bruno tells Bellarmine, ‘and Hell itself would choke on your putrid mendacity and vomit you into the void.’), the deadpan monotone of the melodies now providing an effectively matter-of-fact counterpoint.

In his cell, after the trial, Bruno is visited by hallucinations. You get the sense that this was the scene that the music and libretto were working towards. It begins with a very simple but very lovely pattern, a series of three-note arpeggio shapes, accented and changed on every fifth note. The pattern persists for nine of the scene’s 23 minutes, while Bruno sings with Sophia and Circe, both aspects of the divine, and with James Joyce (not an arbitrarily chosen figure; Joyce greatly admired Bruno). It’s followed by a trance-like bridge to the next hallucination, another simple, spare section where Bruno is visited by himself as a boy, in this section performed by the boy soprano Alex Smith from the 2013 recording. Near the end, Circe and Sophia return with a drifting, ambient accompaniment. 

Click on the image to play album.

Doyle has an upcoming spin-off album, called The Heresy Ostraca, scheduled for release in January 2019. It’s a word I don’t believe I’d encountered before; it refers to broken and inscribed archaeological ceramics, and is a far better descriptor of the material on the album than a word like ‘remix’. The sounds on the album come from the recording of Heresy, broken down into fragments and rebuilt into new material.

The first 13 tracks are numbered, ‘Ostracon 1’ and so on, mostly around three minutes long. The spirit in these tracks is close to dance music, heavy electronic beats, catchy bass lines and melodies, and fun juxtapositions of sound. There’s something of John Cage’s prepared piano works here too: pitches are often tied to particular sounds, so that melodies are a series of timbres as much as a sequence of notes.

The final two are far longer works, oddly given only a sentence each in the album’s current liner notes, and those sentences fairly cryptic. ‘To Know Again’ ’completes the Ostracon series and references it’, and ‘Ghost Playhouse’, which uses recordings of John McCormack, refers to ‘an abandoned derelict and its long history.’ They’re both interesting works, although acoustically rather removed from the preceding tracks and so an odd finish to an enjoyable album.

Heresy and The Heresy Ostraca are available from Roger Doyle’s Bandcamp page, or visit http://rogerdoyle.com.

Click on the image to play album.

Published on 15 November 2018

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit www.brendanfinan.net.

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