Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel Journal: Dublin, IV

Previously I mentioned the charming French businessmen we conversed with at the Ferryman Pub at the end of our first day in Dublin. They were both surprised to learn we were going to Opera Ireland, as they weren't even aware Dublin had an opera company. They expressed their doubts as to whether or not it would be worth attending. Since one of our mutual friends, the exceptionally gifted soprano, Yunah Lee, had sung Madama Butterfly with Opera Ireland last season, we assumed their standards were high. Alas, the skepticism of our new acquaintances was closer to reality than our cock-eyed optimism. I do not intend to spend much time disparaging Opera Ireland's season opening production of Verdi's MacBeth. Nor can I accurately review it since we left at the interval. The title characters were quite good. Some aspects of the modern production worked well. I liked the device of casting dancers as the three leading witches who then morph into the servants at the Macbeth's castle. Their lithe physicality turned what could have been a gimmick into an effective bit of staging. Their presence also solved the technical problem of Macbeth acquiring the dagger (it "appeared" in the hands of the witches/servants). The ghostly trio also embodied the spectre of Banquo in the banquet scene. The other pleasant surprise was the presence of the President of Ireland, whom the audience greeted with warm appreciation.

Our early departure from the disappointing performance did allow us to witness the country's collective disappointment at losing their World Cup qualifying match to France. It also meant that this particular Saturday evening would present challenges to our farewell pub crawl, since most of the pubs in the city centre and surrounding were packed as sardine tins. We managed to find a hip pub/club and enjoyed the people watching over a couple of pints of German beer, a welcome change from the usual stout. We finished the night at a traditional pub, with the sturdy name of O'Neill's and had an appropriate vacation-ending round of Jameson's and Guinness.

The opera was the only less-than-stellar activity or event on the trip. Before the opera we had one of the best plates of fish and chips imaginable. The haddock lightly breaded and fall apart tender, preceded by savory soups--spicy creole for me and potato leek for Amy. We had visited Bull & Castle before Thursday's Evensong service at Christ Church and saw another visiting couple enjoy the fish 'n chips (the pair were not only American but from Virginia, and the husband a choral conductor to boot). So we thought we'd grab dinner there following Saturday's Evensong at the Cathedral.

This Evensong was even more memorable than Thursday's because of the pairing of two of Scotland's greatest contemporary composers, Kenneth Leighton and James MacMillan. Leighton's Second Service were the canticles of the day, and what an inspiring joy it was to hear them live. MacMillan's "A New Song" was the anthem. The two composers have much in common besides their shared provenance. Writing within a tonal context, their harmonic language does not eschew dissonance, and the layered textures that accumulate tension lead to inspired and moving moments of apotheosis and resolution. Both write evocative organ music and are gifted composers for the voice. Their styles are indebted to chant, the English choral tradition, impressionism and jazz. MacMillan has a gift for notating improvised-sounding ornaments in his melodies--turns, sighs, and cries derived from traditional Scottish song replace the older ornaments like the trill and mordent.

Leighton's Gloria Patri ("Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost..."), following the dramatic song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke, is an oasis of calm and an affirmation of the infinite. It was the epitome of what sacred music sung in a sacred space should be, and brought welcome tears to my eyes.

Earlier in the day we visited the last museum on our "must see" list and one of the first to make the list to begin. The Dublin Writers Museum is in a Victorian house and is a fitting shrine to the list of great Irish writers. I expected fitting tributes to Beckett, Joyce and Yeats, and was not disappointed. I was surprised, however, by one of the first relics we came upon. In the first room sits the chair Handel allegedly used for the premiere performance of Messiah (which featured the choir of Christ Church Cathedral and occurred on the colorfully named Fishamble Street in what is now the hip neighborhood of Temple Bar and home to the Contemporary Music Centre, for those enquiring minds). Since no one was looking, we both sat for a moment in Handel's seat. I will let you know if our upcoming performances of Messiah are more inspired as a result!

Memorabilia, busts, first editions, letters, and biographical information line the walls of the museum. An edition of Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies was on display ("The last rose of Summer" being among them). An informative corner devoted to W.B. Yeats mentioned his leading role in founding the Abbey Theatre at the turn of the 20th century, including a collaboration with Elgar on the play Diarmuid and Grania.

A copy of the script to J.M. Synge's provocative & controversial play, The Playboy of the Western World was on display at the Trinity Library. We learned at the Writers Museum its reception was so contentious 500 policemen were required to keep the peace during its opening run. That reminded me of the literal riot that broke out during the Paris premiere of Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring. I'm learning to be happy with life as it is, and don't necessarily long to live in the past. I do wish art was still as central to the lives of a city's citizens as it was as recently as a century ago. While an American President attending opening night at a major arts event is not outside the realm of possibility, a riot erupting over a play, or a new music premiere making the front pages is hard to imagine today. But I digress.

"I have met you too late. You are too old" is what James Joyce said upon meeting his distinguished elder colleague, William Butler Yeats. Joyce's piano was on display, in addition to various special editions of his works like Ulysses. His contemporary and rival, the satirist Oliver St. John Gogarty, was also widely displayed. I was bemused by his poem "Ringsend" which opens with,

"I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore"

It closes with a somewhat more lyrical image

"The sound comes to me
Of the lapsing, unsoilable
Whispering sea."

I first encountered the name "Ringsend" in an alternative band several of my former students formed, and first came upon the name of its author during one of our pub crawls, as one of the largest bars devoted to traditional Irish music is the Oliver St. John Gogarty in Temple Bar. It seems everything in Dublin is no more than one degree away from either art or a pint.

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