Blackwater Valley Opera Festival

Ten Years of Opera  in Co Waterford’s Blackwater Valley

George Fleeton


OPERA can provide us with the perfect backdrop to life; great productions dig deep into both consciousness and the subconscious; like classical music in general it can resource and shore life up; it is a hinterland in which to take temporary refuge and from which to emerge refreshed.

OPERA-IN-PERFORMANCE can trigger depth charges of emotion, understanding and truth for controlled release at a time of our choosing.

AN engaging performance is complex, touching mind and emotions, stirring, relaxing, challenging; at its very best it can be a dangerous encounter, draining, exhilarating; but it gets better the more we know about it, so the deeper we get in to it, suspending disbelief, the more we get out of it.

OPERA could, should be for everyone; it is more than frustrating when the philistines among us say opera is elitist; from Mozart’s time, say from the late 1780s until Puccini’s final pieces one hundred years ago, opera was Europe’s mass entertainment.

IN Ireland we were left out of that cultural development loop; so practically all opera live in performance here is imported from the musical traditions of Italy, France and Germany going back four hundred years.

TODAY there are immense barriers to opera which we need to breach and, once that is done, there will be a whole new multiverse of intellectual stimulation and downright pleasure awaiting many more people.

BLACKWATER  Valley Opera Festival’s Education Programme (with its elements of the Mobile Music Machine and an Irish Heritage Music Bursary) is an excellent instance of this as hundreds of children (450 at the dress rehearsal) - plus older students performing in the daytime Recitals  and evening Concerts - lose their inhibitions, reject the prejudices of their elders, reclaim their right to embrace the glory and the beauty of classical music, and opera’s narratives and characters,  and add it all  to the music they already know and love.

Don Pasquale

EUROPEAN opera is peppered with Dons: Mozart’s Giovanni, Donizetti’s Pasquale, Verdi’s Carlos, Bizet’s José and Massenet’s Quichotte (the latter of which opens Wexford Festival Opera on October 22).

BVOF 2019 opened in Lismore Castle on May 29 with Donizetti’s final farce, first seen in Paris in January 1843, where it featured four of Limerick-born Catherine Hayes’ future colleagues, the Puritani quartet of Lablache, Tamburini, Mario and Grisi.

Hayes was in Paris then, 24 years old and studying with Manuel Garcia; she may very well have been at the Pasquale première … and she would go on to sing Norina in the Theatre Royal Cork (now the GPO on Oliver Plunkett Street) in November 1850, and in Dublin’s Theatre Royal (latterly Hawkins House) in March 1857 - just over four years before her death.

DONIZETTI wrote sixty-five operas, sixteen more than Rossini and Bellini combined; four of them are indispensable: the comedies L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale and the historical tragedies Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lammermoor; L’elisir headlined the former Lismore Opera Festival in 2017, and three indispensable Rossini comic operas have been produced there too: Barbiere, Cenerentola and, last year, L’Italiana.

AT NCH Dublin our Lyric Opera production of Barbiere will be staged on October 12, 13 and 15.

The BVOF Production

DON Pasquale is not a great opera; the narrative has a disagreeable coarseness, which allows a selfish but harmless 70 year old to be treated with unnecessary disdain while the plot lacks any element of surprise or suspense.

‘THIS opera cost me the immense fatigue of eleven days’, boasted Donizetti; in fact composition took over three months and was done with loving care; ‘I was called out at the end of the second and third acts,’ he wrote later, ‘and there was not one piece, from the overture on, that was not applauded to a greater or lesser extent’.

THE BVOF production, with no Arts Council funding, in three performances, as directed by Pierre-Emmanuel Rousseau, was busy and fussy, predictable but conveniently surtitled.

PARTICULAR delights were Darren Hargan’s cool, calm and collected conduct, in a reduced orchestration, of the superb 14-piece band; the trumpet solo at Act 2; Aoife Gibney’s competent, confident and convincing interpretation of Norina’s casual magic music; wonderful ensembles, yet no meaningful employment for the chorus; lots of secco accompagnato, and of course Sandra Oman’s tenth consecutive year stealing scenes, on this occasion in a wheelchair, as she recovers from a misfortunate accident some time ago– Lismore’s longest serving artiste.

No swifts darting in and out of the stables upstage this year, just anti-roosting bird spikes in the gutters.

PASQUALE, like Verdi’s Falstaff fifty years later, does try to engender our sympathy for the persecuted and our dislike for the tormentors but Donizetti and his libretto fall short: yes Norina and Malatesta make some feint at compassion but she is a minx, he’s a despicable cad and Ernesto is a prune; L’elisir is a much better opera with an adorable Adina, a lovable Dulcamara and a fetching if pathetic Nemorino.

AT Lismore, since 2010, we’ve had five of these bel canto pieces – lots of good tunes, plenty of laughs and patter alla commedia dell’arte, in shows structured and well-presented within the particular parameters of the Castle stable yard; but that’s quite enough for the moment, thank you.

FOR the record, the other five offerings, interspersed annually with these, were Carmen and the four best and best-known Mozarts.

SO it is with enormous anticipation that next year, probably May 26-June 01, in a radical change of direction, courtesy of artistic director Dieter Kaegi, a double bill of Leoncavallo’s verismo fairground tragedy I Pagliacci (1892) and Puccini’s penultimate opera and only comedy Gianni Schicchi (1918) will be staged back to back.

NOW that is the kind of imaginative lateral thinking required after ten years, as Blackwater Valley Opera Festival 2.o approaches its second decade in 2020.


IT was with considerable regret that I was unable to attend any of the eleven Recitals and Concerts, especially those either produced or curated by Una Hunt.

THESE events clearly constitute that artistic added value which gives this Festival an integrity unimpaired and unequalled at present anywhere in Ireland.