mon 03/10/2022

theartsdesk at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2022 - a safe space to reflect on horrors | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2022 - a safe space to reflect on horrors

theartsdesk at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2022 - a safe space to reflect on horrors

Masha Gessen, Shostakovich and Shakespeare’s Prospero wrestle order from chaos

Masha Gessen in St Canace's CathedralAll images c Kilkenny Festival

Essay-writing can be a great art, at least when executed by Hubert Butler of Kilkenny, on a par - whether you know his writing or not, and you should – with Bacon, Swift and Orwell. The same goes for speechifying. That level I witnessed, at the start of my three days at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, from Masha Gessen delivering the Hubert Butler Annual Lecture, and at the end from Professor Roy Foster, Fiona Shaw and the winner of this year’s Huber Butler Essay Prize, Kevin Sullivan.

Disclosure first: it was my partner who set up the Prize as part of HEART London, a potential home for European Arts in the UK when Brexit loomed. So I won’t dwell on this year’s streamlined event in the stunningly converted Parade Tower of Kilkenny Castle. But Gessen’s timely lecture, and the events in between – three concerts and a play – deserve full scope. The entire programme, a credit to the very approachable festival director Olga Barry, was a marvel, with events from many other top-notch Irish ensembles as well as distinguished visitors from Berlin, New York and Sweden.

The beauty of all I encountered was absolute clarity, Gessen in St Canace’s Cathedral, the Carducci Quartet in their cycle of the 15 Shostakovich quartets every lunchtime in the perfect space of St John’s Priory – I heard quartets 5 to 9 – and Irish theatre company Rough Magic’s outdoor production of The Tempest (pictured below) all marshalling order and lucidity from chaos. Even the serene odd man out, with world class Irish mezzo Tara Erraught joining Peter Whelan and the Irish Baroque Orchestra in a programme of pure delight, celebrated the achievements of a castrato with Irish connections, Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, whose status as a great artist did not save him from savage treatment and imprisonment at the hands of a capricious society. (debt and secret marriage to an Irish girl were the causes). The Tempest at the Kilkenny Arts FestivalHubert, most distinguished scion of the Butlers of what is now Kilkenny Castle (pictured below), handed over to the state and with its magnificent parklands above the River Nore open to all, celebrated both the local and the universal; he was both a Kilkenny man up to his death at the age of 90 and the most passionate of Europeans.

Having observed the rise of anti-Semitism during his travels during the 1930s, in 1938 he helped hundreds of Viennese Jews to flee the Nazis, and he was among the first to draw attention to the forced conversion of two and half million Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism, an event which involved ethnic cleansing; his campaign set him at serious loggerheads with the Irish authorities. You can’t do better in becoming acquainted with his lucidly expressed ethics than to invest in two volumes, which I read in the beautifully produced Notting Hill editions: The Invader Wore Slippers: European Essays and The Eggman and the Fairies: Irish Essays. Kilkenny CastleTo come up to that extraordinarily high level is no easy task, but I believe Masha Gessen achieves it in the one book of this writer (who prefers the term “they/theirs”) I’ve read to date, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, published in 2017 but utterly relevant to now. A Guardian review remonstrated with the use of the word “totalitarianism”, but here we are. In their compellingly delivered lecture in St Canace’s Cathedral), surrounded by the black marble tombs of the Butlers and others, speaking to a packed audience, Gessen told us how they were working on one kind of book before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they started with a picture of a meeting with friends in Kyiv just before it. The bulk of the lecture was about the complexity of exile, with perhaps a few too many quotations from previous distinguished writers on the subject and “the reality of the possibility of hope”, which Gessen’s final tableau evoked: the friends they’d met had fled Ukraine but returned, and in May they were all back in some semblance of Kyiv normality. I hope the text will be published soon; like The Future is History, it’s of the essence.

So much of what Gessen had said resonated in the Shostakovich quartets I heard; yes, they are total masterpieces in the abstract, but the personal expression of circumstances in Stalin’s vast prison camp that was the Soviet Union then - and which Russia is now -  is also expressed not only in violence but also “the possibility of hope”. That's present even in the lamenting quiet close of No. 5, very apparent in the more emotionally distanced No. 6, abrasively assertive at the end of No. 9. Carducci Quartet at the Kilkenny FestivalPithily introduced by first violinist Matthew Denton (pictured above with Michelle Fleming, Eoin Schmidt-Martin and Emma Denton), the Carduccis’ interpretations may not always have been the ultimate word in fierceness or depth, but – I repeat – maintained absolute clarity of expression. And though I had to leave the cycle behind, there could have been no more impressive kaleidoscope of Shostakovich’s quartet writing than the second of the two concerts I heard – starting with the elliptical Seventh, highlighting tragic autobiography in the best-known of all 15, the Eighth, sounding so fresh here, and ending with the huge adventure of the Ninth, which has become a favourite. Not least for the multifacetedness of its finale; cellist Emma Denton giving an unforgettable cadenza before the bewildering-exhilarating final cavalcade.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the creative artist marshalling chaos and dislocation is Prospero, whose task is to bring treacherous enemies and schemers to heel. The only two convincing productions I’ve seen of this elusive swansong have both featured female Prosperos – Harriet Walter in Phyllida Lloyd’s wondrous women’s-prison Donmar Shakespeare trilogy, and here Eleanor Methven for Rough Magic – commanding, tender, humorous, inflecting the voice with such a range. But when has the one courtier who was kind to her, Gonzalo, ever been more important? By casting the equally strong Gina Moxley in the role (pictured below), director Lynne Parker stressed the ultimately ineffectual strategems of bullying men versus the staying power of resourceful women. Gna Moxley in The TempestThe Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban scenes were played not for desperate laughs, but with a realistic edge, a very real threat, led by Rory Nolan’s roaring drunk; further coups were achieved by double-casting John Cronin as Caliban and Antonio, Rowan Finken as bad Sebastian and good young Ferdinand. His scenes with a more than usually feisty Miranda (Gillian Buckle) were pure energetic charm.

In fact there wasn’t a weak characterisation. Martha Breen’s Ariel (pictured below with Methven) matched her mistress for vocal range and spent a lot of her time in the crow’s nest atop the mast on a set in the middle of the beautiful Parklands which accommodated slipway and Prospero’s study. Scene from The TempestHow, you might ask, to conjure a storm in a landlocked park on the most beautiful of summer evenings?. Answer: from a distance, Prospero commanding it and the voices of the court folk on board picked up by the mast as radio-aerial. Composer and sound designer Denis Clohessy worked wonders, starting with the lapping of waves we heard behind and around us before the drama began. Most of the stranger magic happened after the interval, where Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting could come into its own. We missed only the Masque; but there could hardly have been greater focus or skill in the interplay of all the characters.

Our Prospero back in St Canice’s was Tara Erraught, the total artist. Every singer must know Giordani’s “Caro mio ben” as the first port of call in lessons, and first choice in that infamous book of Arie Antiche. I never thought it would bring me to tears, but Erraught’s long-lined delivery and exquisite dynamics, perfectly complemented by the IBO and Whelan, made one realise what a little masterpiece it is, all the more surprising after the dramatic realisation of the same composer’s “Lament of Queen Mary [Stuart]”. Erraught's diction is always perfect too, enhancing the range of expressive colours in the voice.Tenducci and Tara ErraughtThe subject of the evening’s entertainment, castrato Tenducci (pictured above with Erraught), had met Giordani in the 1760s at Dublin’s Smock Alley, and both numbers were popular items in his repertoire. He made his name in the premiere of Arne’s Artaxerxes at the Drury Lane Theatre, and there could be no better showcase for Erraught’s charismatic mezzo than the coloratura agility “Amid a thousand racking woes” followed by the melting mood of “Water parted from the sea”.

Butler would surely have loved the interplay of Irish, Scottish and continental European in the programme. Giordani’s “Irish medley” culminated in the most exhilarating of jigs; co-star of the evening, oboist Mark Baignet shone in Johann Christian Fischer’s Variations on “Gramachree Molly”; and Johann Chistian Bach’s fantasia on “The Braes of Ballenden”, with starring roles for violin, viola, cello and oboe between Erraught’s vivid projection of the verses, first performed by Tenducci, of course, was a total winner. Peter Whelan in St Canace's CathedralTwo “Dublin” sinfonias by Flemish composer Pieter van Maldere offered very fitful originality, but the now familiar verve of Whelan (pictured above introducing the programme) and co carried them off. And it was wise to end with a real masterpiece, Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” – Amadeus wrote a work for Tenducci, but it’s been lost – and more vivacious charm from the marvellous Erraught.  

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