Saturday, 3 January 2009


28/11/08, ENO
50 mins (including a “prologue” consisting of a piece by Sibelius, Luonnotar, a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, first performed 1913). Riders itself around 40 mins; music Vaughan Williams, words Synge, first performed 1936; this production directed by Fiona Shaw

Ger-loo-my. The Aran Islands and death by drowning. At the start mother and daughters fear the missing Michael has been drowned at sea. Confirmation comes in the form of a fragment of his shirt and one of his socks. His brother Bartley sets off to take the red mare and the grey pony to the mainland to market, amid much foreboding. Towards the end he is delivered back to the women, drowned, when the mother (Patricia Bardon, excellent as she was in Partenope) welcomes the death of this, the last of her six sons: now she need fear the sea no more.

Music in a minor key and frankly monotonous throughout, the most effective moments those when grief is at its most overwhelming… and the music stops.

Great set – sloping stage, rugged cliffs stage L, upturned black boats the shape of discarded banana skins (but rather more beautiful, as D points out) descending from the flies during the mother’s lament. (The programme says: “Curraghs by Padraig O’Dunnin and the lads at Meitheal Mara”.)

Spectacular video – on the back wall (one minute the sea, the next minute the sky) and on the floor, where the rectangle representing the women’s cottage at the start apparently filled with water like the real Worm Hole on the Aran Islands’ coast.

Fiona Shaw’s first stab at directing. Can’t fault the lighting or the design, with the daughters in full red skirts, brown blouses and black shawls, but there was too much (rather aimless) rushing about and too many realistic props (kettle, mugs, darning mushrooms) which were rather at odds with the non-naturalistic representation of the house and the boats, and rather got in the way.

J (deputising for A) said she had trouble with the cod Irish. Except it was by Synge so presumably wasn’t cod. I said it was typical of the early 20th century passion for taking folk tales, folk music and folk motifs and cleaning them up for the salon and the polite theatre. S said she’d prefer more Handel.

Most effective was the prelude, a bit of Finnish nonsense about a nymph who became the sea for 700 years and destroyed the nest of a duck which laid its eggs on her knee. But the duck’s broken eggs became the sky, the moon and the stars. (I told you it was nonsense.)

Sung by a pregnant (or pretend pregnant?) soprano standing on the thwart of one of the black boats, suspended vertically. She had an immensely long dress which she discarded as she sang – while behind her one saw video projections of jellyfish in water, a woman with red hair floating in water, a white horse swimming in water. The music by Sibelius had real heft when compared to the Vaughan Williams. Ruined only by the woman who sneezed loudly just behind us during the last, long, diminuendo. Despite the note in the programme which reads: “Silence sponsored by Sela-Cough lozenges, which are available free of charge from the bars and in the foyer”.

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