Thursday, 13 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Last Hotel, or, In the Shadow of John Adams

In interviews following the Festival's programme launch in March, Fergus Linehan was candid about the challenges for the opera segment of the programme. At the same time he unveiled a canny line-up for his first festival – two repertory staples, and a new commission. In recent years, the Festival has had an adventurous record in putting on new opera. The success rate has not been especially high, but the attempts deserve praise. The same applies to this latest effort. Performance and production wise it is done to a high standard. Unfortunately, I can't say that I think the work itself is ultimately of the same merit (though as seems to be happening a fair bit this week I'm once again in dissent from the rest of the critical fraternity).

The best aspect of this show are the musical performances given by a trio of fine vocal soloists: Claudia Boyle (Woman), Robin Adams (Husband) and Katherine Manley (Wife). Of the soloists Boyle gives the most consistently fine performance, and sounds most comfortable with the high lying nature of the vocal writing. Earlier on I thought Manley sounded a little at the limit of her comfort zone but she settles as the show progresses. The writing for Adams is peculiar with its periodic breaking into falsetto. This doesn't seem to me to serve any particular dramatic or emotional purpose but Adams handles it well from a performance point of view. The soloists are supported by committed playing from the Crash Ensemble under Andre de Ridder. The Ensemble bring as much drama as they can to the performance, but the score doesn't give them enough support in the endeavour. The performing line-up is completed by the non-singing role of the Caretaker (Mikel Murfi). His movement is impressive and on occasions funny but in opera you do have to provide a good reason why a character doesn't sing (even Mozart's Die Entfuhrung, a great work, doesn't wholly get past this) and Dennehy and Walsh fail to do this.

The work itself is also odd. The subject matter concerns an English husband and wife who have travelled to this run down Irish hotel in order to assist an Irish woman to commit suicide. My experience of Enda Walsh's writing previously was mixed. I found Misterman quite powerful and Ballyturk pretty awful (both staged at the National). The libretto here falls somewhere between those two. Walsh manages emotional insight into all three characters at various points, and some flashes of poetry in the language, but neither effect is sufficiently sustained to carry an eighty minute opera. This is compounded by several other issues. The actual text often doesn't stand up to the repetition which the score requires of it. Walsh doesn't get far enough in his exploration of the relationships between the characters, or, indeed, their individual motivations. Finally, unlike the comparison which for me overshadowed the majority of the evening – John Adams's major operas – Walsh seems completely uninterested in exploring any of the larger questions which assisted suicide raises. This was my first encounter with the composer, Donnacha Dennehy. His minimalist soundworld is likewise overshadowed by John Adams. There are some instrumental points of interest – the use of the accordian and what sounded like pan pipes at one point which give some individuality of colour. But Dennehy, unlike Adams, isn't able to build to the kind of shattering climaxes which the subject matter needs. His vocal writing, perhaps hindered by Walsh's text,  doesn't reach often enough that perfect click of words and music that, again, Adams and his collaborators have often achieved and, over the course of eighty minutes, the absence of contrast to the high lying soprano lines does begin to tell. There are also aspects where Dennehy's writing doesn't seem up to what he wants to do – both the pop music and spoken dialogue interpolations jar with the rest of the score – a greater composer would have been able to meet these needs through his own voice.

Enda Walsh's production has much to commend it. Jamie Vartan's set is an effective space which complements rather than fights the text, the lift is nicely contrived though it's a slightly odd decision when there is a real upper level. Walsh's management of his personnel is on the whole solid but there is quite a bit of fairly traditional stand and deliver. This is again I suspect partly a consequence of the mainly solo vocal writing and may also be making a point about the isolation of each of the trio, but as a result it isn't direction which really crafts those great telling tiny moments of connection.

Staging new opera is always a bold decision given the financial constraints. This is a better work than the Festival's last attempt in this area, the dull American Lulu. But it is finally a work overshadowed by superior masters, and it left me emotionally indifferent.

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