Transformations, Dun Mhuire Theatre, Wexford

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Wexford Festival’s artistic director, David Agler, is developing a new strand of programming with a focus on American opera, a genre widely disregarded in Europe, and himself conducted this revival of Conrad Susa’s 1973 “entertainment”. As entertainments go, Transformations is unusually complex.

The libretto derives from Anne Sexton’s volume of poems of the same name, which presents versions of Grimm’s fairy tales into which she injects psychological perceptions that further darken the already troubling originals.

Describing herself as “a middle-aged witch” – though contemporary culture might visualise her as a desperate literary housewife – Sexton maintains a presence in her work that Fiona McAndrew recreates with striking personality in Michael Barker-Caven’s crisp ensemble staging.

Susa’s musical setting is highly respectful of the text – almost every word of Sexton’s narratives can he heard, some of them shocking – while counterpointing their vernacular immediacy with references to American popular music of the 1940s and 1950s.

The rhythms of samba, tango and foxtrot abound, along with instructions for the performers to emulate the likes of Bing Crosby or the Andrews Sisters. With such comfortingly familiar allusions the score subtly insinuates itself into the listener’s consciousness whilst ironically undercutting our response to the regularly disturbing material.

Barker-Caven and designer Joe Vanek bring just the right level of ambivalence to the unsettling evocations of illicit passion, marital frustration, mental instability and incest that can be uncovered in such seemingly innocuous territories as Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel and Briar Rose.

Agler’s conducting of the nine-piece pit-ensemble – treated by Susa more as a dance-band combo than a regular opera orchestra – could do with more oomph, and the score itself is arguably not as memorable in the first half as the second.

But the eight-strong company lock into their tasks with expertise, and the result is an evening delicately balanced between sophisticated wit and a numbing realisation of something terribly wrong.
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