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Beethoven’s prison opera is a socially aware breath of fresh air

Fidelio at Gaiety Theatre, Dublin until Saturday, November 13


Robert Murray and Sinéad Campbell Wallace in the Irish National Opera production of Fidelio. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Robert Murray and Sinéad Campbell Wallace in the Irish National Opera production of Fidelio. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Robert Murray and Sinéad Campbell Wallace in the Irish National Opera production of Fidelio. Photo by Patrick Redmond

Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera dates from the early years of the 19th century. It’s a piece of social-conscience art about the treatment of state prisoners with a love story at its core. Its most moving song captures a moment when a group of prisoners are briefly let out into the yard to get their first taste of fresh air after years of captivity.

This Irish National Opera production starts in a lighthearted manner. ‘Fidelio’, Leonore disguised as a man, has got herself a job with the prison’s chief jailer, Rocco. Her husband Florestan is being secretly held there. She sets about ingratiating herself with Rocco to gain access to all areas. Her ingratiation is a little too effective however, as she attracts the amorous attention of Rocco’s daughter Marzelline. This is much to the chagrin of Rocco’s assistant Jaquino, who himself wants to marry Marzelline. The opera starts out with this romantic mix-up energy to lure the audience in.

The first scene is in an ordinary prison admin office. Soon Francis O’Connor’s excellent set expands to reveal the caged areas, including walkways overhead, all angles and harsh surfaces, rising into the Gaiety’s great stage height.

Tenor Dean Power as the jilted Jaquino is proving to be a fine actor as well as singer. Sinéad Campbell Wallace’s Leonore has a rich, powerful soprano and transforms spectacularly from watchful man into passionate woman. Bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi’s Rocco is a jobsworth whose innate good heart isn’t sufficiently good-hearted to make him rebel against his powerful boss. Tenor Robert Murray as Florestan, who first appears in Act 2, combines strength with vulnerability in a perfectly pitched mix. Fergus Sheil conducts the full INO orchestra with pure relish.

This is a more socially aware opera than most. And that scene when the prisoners emerge is breathtaking. Director Annabelle Comyn pushes the formal opera boundaries into a realist mould, mostly with success. A cup of tea is meticulously made during the overture. But the credibility finally feels strained once we get to the denouement. Fortunately, Beethoven is there to catch you; the brilliant rich music carries you past the mundanity of realism into the sublime of sound.

Religion and showbiz make converts aplenty

The Book of Mormon at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until December 4

Opening night played to a masked full capacity at the 2,100-seat theatre: the big musical is back in business. The Book of Mormon is a laugh-a-minute romp.

Book, music and lyrics are by the three-way partnership of Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone. Parker and Stone are the creators of the animated TV series South Park, and that series’ anarchic sensibility is writ large here. The show is provocative on several fronts. Race, sexuality and religion are all up for a merry kickabout and the language is not for sensitive ears.

The show opens at a Mormon missionary school in Utah where the recruits are being trained in the art of ringing doorbells. When the students graduate, Elder Price (Robert Colvin) and Elder Cunningham (Conner Peirson) are sent on a mission to Uganda. Bright shiny ambitious Price is not happy with being saddled with compulsive liar and social misfit Cunningham. Nor is he happy with Uganda as a destination.

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The show just about skates above recent controversies about cultural appropriation of African life by being outrageous, offensive to all and very funny. The show is a satire on Mormonism, but a gentle one — there were several Mormons outside afterwards, seeking recruits. Great performances, added to the slick choreography and music, give this show an infectious energy. It’s hard to resist being converted.

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