Saturday 1 October 2016

Classical: Star Balfe's link to home of Irish opera

George Hamilton

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Michael Balfe
Michael Balfe

It was happenstance that put the trip into context. We were heading south along the back road to Wexford, the better to avoid the swollen River Slaney, when the navigator slipped in the CD. It was Enya. "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls," she sang, "but I also dreamt which pleased me most/ That you loved me still the same."

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"I like this one," the navigator purred. What could I do but concur.

The sweet song is from Michael Balfe's opera The Bohemian Girl, first staged in 1843, about a young woman called Arline who came from the Big House and was kidnapped as a child and brought up by a family of gypsies - the Bohemians of the title.

Balfe (pictured), born in Dublin in 1808, was a huge star in his day, a baritone who was Rossini's choice to sing Figaro in his Barber of Seville. He was a prolific composer, too, responsible for no fewer than 28 operas, Victorian Britain's musical equivalent to Charles Dickens.

Enya's Marble Halls was helping us on our way to the National Opera House, and though I didn't realise then, there is a connection. When Wexford Festival Opera set about presenting its first production in 1951 in what was then the Theatre Royal, it was to Balfe's catalogue they turned.

The Rose of Castille was their choice, an opera by then best remembered for a reference in James Joyce's Ulysses, where Lenehan, the "sporting vagrant armed with a vast stock of stories, limericks and riddles", poses the question: "What opera is like a railway line?" and answers, "The Rose of Castille. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel."

As a child, Balfe lived in Wexford, where his father taught dance for a time, so opting for one of his operas was entirely appropriate.

Not only that, but by going for a forgotten gem, the festival was laying down a marker. At least part of its enduring success is down to the fact that its programme makes a point of showcasing material that doesn't get out much any more.

The three operas featuring in this year's festival - the 65th edition, which will run from October 26 to November 6 - make the point.

Herculanum - a Christians and barbarians tale dating from 1859 - is the one and only grand opera by a less well-known French composer, Félicien David.

Vanessa - which tells of a middle-aged woman who's in denial about the passage of time and refuses to look at herself in the mirror, yet wins out over her love rival, who happens to be her niece - would seem to be a long way from the Adagio for Strings, which is the most recognisable of the compositions of its creator Samuel Barber.

Donizetti's dark tragedy Maria de Rudenz, premiered in Venice in 1838, completes the bill.

Home for the festival is now the magnificent National Opera House, a veritable Tardis standing on the site of the old Theatre Royal, which it replaced in 2008.

Joining the growing throng making its way through the narrow, hilly streets of the old town, you'd never guess that your destination, a doorway set in a terrace of unprepossessing houses in High Street, itself not much wider than a laneway, hides a purpose-built auditorium that's been rightly described as the best small opera house in the world.

Rising over three tiers with horseshoe shaped balconies to bring greater intimacy, it's the perfect place to enjoy musical drama at its finest.

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