It’s an obvious conceit, but it’s a generous and inclusive one nonetheless. When composer and director John O’Brien takes to the stage just before “The Nightingale and the Rose,” looking to enlist the audience, the line between artist and audience becomes intentionally blurred. Yet making the audience complicit in the performance proves to be a gentle stroke of genius. Reinforced by Liza Zagone’s superb set, wherein the audience glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain to see all the bolts and cables as soprano, Kim Sheehan, begins her vocal warm-up in front of everyone. It might look meta-theatrically manufactured, a smattering of Brecht with a ton of Thornton Wilder, but O’Brien’s opera “The Nightingale and the Rose” proves irresistible for being honest and heartfelt right down to its bare bones. A sumptuous, bittersweet joy, “The Nightingale and the Rose” is opera straight from the heart.
Adapted from Oscar Wilde's short story of the same name, the allegorical “The Nightingale and the Rose,” composed and directed by John O’Brien, with libretto by O’Brien and Éadaoin O’Donoghue, follows a self-sacrificing nightingale as she sets about procuring a red rose for a lovelorn student. If the price exacted proves too much, that’s the least of the tragedy. For its the manner in which the Christ-like Nightingale's gift is received that the true depth of the tragedy is revealed, begging some difficult questions regarding the art of love, and the love of art, now and through the ages.
Zagone’s set, beautifully lit by Sinéad McKenna, plays with the bare bones of staging, of which it employs many, including paints and canvases, pulleys and stairways. Yet, like her glorious costumes, Zagone's staging is steeped in playful, clever designs and wild, exuberant colours. Visually, it often resembles a high school production of an allegorical Our Town, or a children’s TV program. No bad thing, for one of “The Nightingale and the Rose’s” immeasurable charms is an unaffected feeling of ageless innocence. Making it an opera that not only appeals to children, but one that makes children of us all as sun and moon, fox and spider, nightingale and roses all converse in its magical, musical wonderland. Yet this is no fluffy lightweight innocence, but one stepped in a pained questioning of futility against which hope constantly strives.
Throughout, O’Brien’s direction, along with some delightful choreographic flourishes by Philip Connaughton, crafts a slow swirling vortex of constantly shifting energies in a masterclass of compositional arrangement. Nothing is let settle for too long, the sitting student aside, and the interwoven tapestry of voice, music, and movement, right down to a pirouetting percussionist, are a sheer delight to watch and listen to. Vocally, both the Sun, tenor Owen Gilhooly, and the Moon, soprano Majella Cullagh, deliver solid performances. A sublime chorus of baritones Joe Corbett and Jamie Rock, bass-baritone David Howes, and tenors Jacek Wislocki and Jean Pascal Heynemand, harmonise to perfection as the Rose Tree. Singing by a wonderful Kim Sheehan as the jittery, self-sacrificing Nightingale is out of this world, her birdlike gestures and movements adding detail and finesse to an already resonant performance.
All of whom are superbly supported by musicians Christine Kenny (violin), Catriona Scott (clarinet and soprano sax), Ilse De Ziah (cello), Íde Ní Chonaill (bassoon), Clare Larkman (double bass), and Emma King (percussion) who perform live, enhancing the richness of O’Brien’s lush score, making it both intimate and epic in scale in a beautifully crafted performance. Dancers Lucia Kickham, Andrea Hackl, and Sarah Ryan, along with James de Burca as Student and Úna O’Brien as Girl round out an impressive ensemble.
“The Nightingale and the Rose” might appear childlike at times, but like all good fairytales there are hidden, adult depths beneath the obvious surface. Throughout, “The Nightingale and the Rose” is infused with an infectious innocence, a supreme belief in the imaginative ingenuity of opera and the arts to transform and bring people together. It might prove to be a futile act in some cases, but resisting “The Nightingale and the Rose” is itself futile, for it is the rule of hope that establishes the exceptions. It might not leave you living happily ever after, but “The Nightingale and the Rose” might well be a light in the dark to help you find your way home. Humming along as you do so.
The Arts Review 24/10/2018