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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Dead: An Opera

Kathy Rose O'Brien in The Dead: An Opera. Image uncredited.


The ghosts of The Gaiety were smiling last night as the venerable venue hosted its first live performance since Covid restrictions eased. Their resonant presence palpable in the thinned out, dimly lit auditorium which welcomed an audience of fifty for The Performance Corporation's haunting, and often humorous The Dead: An Opera, produced by Breda Cashe Productions, based on the short story by James Joyce. A production with something of an identity crisis. Yet one that manages to rise above it all.

In Joyce's most famous short story man about town, Gabriel Conroy, and wife Greta, endure the banalities of polite society on a snowy winters night during which a ghostly song resurrects a forgotten memory. Arguably one of the greatest denouement in the history of short stories, Joyce's masterpiece feels like its going nowhere until you break through its dense undergrowth to take in its full view, in which hindsight proves crucial. Most of which Tom Swift's libretto distils, allowing for some modest accommodations for theatrical convenience.

With a string quartet playing live onstage, accompanying a quartet of singers, the sense of a chamber opera is keenly suggested, if less keenly evoked. While Ellen Cranitch's sombre music is a dark delight, it's arrangements are as much musical theatre as opera. As is most of the singing. Playing a variety of roles, singers Rachel O'Byrne, Susannah De Wrixon and Kathy Rose O'Brien each have pleasing voices, but it would be generous to call them operatic. Especially as they often drown beneath the power of the instruments. John Molloy's impressive baritone, which does most of the vocal heavy lifting, being the only voice that holds its own. Even when, in the final moments, the singing seems to cry out for a tenor.

The Dead: An Opera. Image uncredited.

Which is not to suggest that singing is bad; quite the contrary. Apart, that is, from O'Byrne's superb solo sung standing on a chair. It's more that phrasing caters as much, or more, to a musical theatre styled overlapping, call-and-response arrangement as it does to recitative. Indeed, The Dead: The Musical would be equally valid as a title. Or just The Dead, for it frequently captures aspects of both opera and musical theatre. And if not quite the best of both worlds, it often comes close, with neither cancelling the other out. Throughout, Jo Mangan's peppy direction keeps things moving, yet certain moments could have benefited from a choreographer. Niamh Lunny and Kevin McFadden's design might be minimal, but it's ideal for a touring production.

Arguably an opera/musical theatre hybrid, The Dead:An Opera is not without its issues. Yet rarely has Joyce's tale been made so seductively enjoyable. Molloy's singing is strong and commanding. O'Byrne and De Wrixon ooze personality. A gifted Kathy Rose O'Brien is spellbindingly vivacious. And Cranitch's keening score is both compelling and beautifully performed. Even the venerable old ghosts were applauding.

The Dead:An Opera, an original production by The Performance Corporation, produced by Breda Cashe Productions, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until August 8.

A high quality recording of the performance is available on demand from August 16 to August 30.

For more information visit The Gaiety Theatre.


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