NESTLED in the Blackwater Valley at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, Lismore is arguably the prettiest town in Ireland.
In his 19th century Irish Sketch Book , William Makepeace Thackeray was effusive in his praise of the town and environs, describing “the river and banks as fine as the Rhine and the castle as noble and picturesque as Warwick”. June is a busy month in the Co Waterford town with three niche festivals stacked up dedicated to opera, travel writing, and scientist Robert Boyle.
In this idyllic setting of “the handsome seats of gentlemen”, a world apart with its tradition of evening gowns, picnics and walled gardens, the rebranded Lismore Opera Festival is gearing up for its seventh incarnation. The programme includes a full length production in the castle grounds and song recitals in Salterbridge and Cappoquin House. Originally set in a garden by the sea, Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte lends itself to such an alfresco setting.
Swiss director Dieter Kaegi spent 10 years at Aix-en-Provence Festival and the setting has elements in common with the Theatre l’Archeveché, with the existing façade of a historical building integrated into the set. In Lismore, the opera is presented in the covered courtyard of the stables with the stone walls forming a backdrop for the action
The cast is a blend of youth and experience. Making her debut in her first Mozart role as Fiordiligi is Rachel Croash. The young Dublin soprano has been tipped as a rising star, scooping multiple Feis prizes and an emerging artists’ bursary from Wexford Festival. As part of the young artist scheme with OTC, she played the title role in the comic one act opera, Susannah’s Secret, where she showed not only a quality voice but a fine dramatic instinct too.
Croash came relatively late to opera. She was in her early twenties when she enrolled in the RIAM following a music degree in Maynooth. At 10, she joined children’s choir, the Blakestown Choristors directed by Barbara McHugh. “Barbara taught us discipline and respect for music and we took such pride in being in that choir. It was really my first formal training and so valuable to me”.
Her first experience of opera came shortly after starting at RIAM. “I sang in the chorus for Opera Ireland’s production and standing side stage in the final moments watching Orla Boylan with the orchestra soaring in the pit, I thought, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.”
Croash worked hard to make up for lost time. “I have been extremely lucky so far to have played such diverse roles, I’ve been a teacher, a banana, a prostitute, a fairy... there really is never a dull moment! Fiordiligi has been on my wishlist since I was at the RIAM, I performed her arias in every masterclass and concert. Fiordiligi is an interesting character, the strong elder sister who tries to take control of the situation but eventually is tempted. That’s what I love about Mozart. Even now these characters are real and relatable.”
Also making his debut is the young conductor Killian Farrell. At just 22 years old , Farrell is already something of a veteran on the scene having started conducting in his mid-teens.
Well used to working with large forces on big choral works, conducting a full length opera with a 10-piece instrumental ensemble will be a new challenge for him.
“I heard Così when I was 15. It was the work that drew me in to opera. The wind writing is so forward looking. Even when the characters are at their most insincere, the music is always utterly sincere”.
There is an accompanying fringe festival and as part of the preamble there is a dining option in the walled garden and pre show talks by George Fleeton.
Lismore Opera Festival takes place from June 3-5: Così Fan Tutte takes place on June 3 and 4; Saturday sold out. Tickets for this year’s festival range from €85 to €200.