Least Like The Other: Searching For Rosemary Kennedy – Irish National Opera – Review
by Paddy McGovern
Sep 11 – 18, 2021 8pm – Dublin O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere College
Sep 22, 2021 8pm – Cork Cork Opera House
Sep 25, 2021 8pm – Limerick Lime Tree Theatre
Fresh from the great success of Richard Strauss’s Elektra at Kilkenny a few weeks ago, The Irish National Opera’s revival of their already acclaimed Least Like The Other: Searching for Rosemary Kennedy reaffirms their reputation for outstanding productions of challenging work. The opera, created by Brian Irvine and Netia Jones, was first performed as part of the 2019 Galway International Arts Festival, with fourteen live musicians working with two conductors. Like all theatre and music companies, the Covid pandemic has demanded imaginative adaptation regarding venues and logistics – and indeed performers. The INO has risen to the challenge triumphantly, the instrumental parts being pre-recorded and experienced by the audience on fourteen speakers in “surround sound”.
The tragedies surrounding the Kennedy clan, the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, the plane crashes that took away their father’s favourite, first Joe Junior, later his sister, the brilliant and beautiful Kathleen, are well known. Joe Kennedy Snr and his wife Rose were determined to do everything in their power to mould their family into the embodiment of the “American dream”. The children were great athletes, dazzlingly good looking and brilliantly intelligent – except for one, Rosemary, who was born with a degree of intellectual disability. Her tragedy, carefully hidden from view for decades, is the focus of the opera.
In a 1974 interview used in this production Rose Kennedy said: “Like every mother, I want my children to be as perfect as possible, morally, mentally and physically.” The emphasis on perfection, on winning, on coming first is brilliantly conveyed by Jones’s staging, as rapid-fire questions are voiced and simultaneously flashed on screens, with Irvine’s accompanying score evoking Rosemary’s increasing bewilderment and lostness. Multiple efforts were made to eliminate any sign of abnormality and when all else failed Joe and Rose decided to opt for an experimental procedure, frontal lobotomy, with catastrophic consequences for their daughter.
Mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell’s portrayal of Rosemary is an outstanding achievement, more than deserving of OperaWire’s description of her as “a phenomenally versatile, intelligent actress.” Vocally secure throughout a musically demanding score, her concentration on the emotion of the part is unfaltering even as her singing is ‘interrupted’ and cross-cut by voice-over, staccato questions and discordant orchestration. Dancer/actor Stephanie Dufresne and actor Ronan Leahy combine several roles, from Rosemary’s siblings to staff at the mental institution where she was to spend most of her life. Aoife Spillane Hinks combines the role of assistant director with that of on-stage voice-over, conveying comments, ‘professional’ pronouncements and snippets from family recollections and interviews with the matriarchal Rose. Each of them is up to the standard of the staging of the opera which is outstanding in its clarity, imaginative reach and execution.
The set – clinical, austere, relentlessly oppressive – lighting, soundscape and projections all serve to draw us into the experience of this intense, brilliant, seventy-minute experience. The video sequence of the Rosemary figure swimming, all free and fluid movement, bathed in sky blue and dazzling white, suggests the quality of life she might have enjoyed. Its tweaking in muted colour and dimmed light, at the finale, is an inspired touch by the director, one among many.
Given its bleak subject matter, you won’t be humming any arias on your way home, but as the production moves to Cork next week, no one who appreciates first-class theatre or enthralling contemporary music should miss it.
Mezzo-soprano – Naomi Louisa O’Connell – SEPTEMBER 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 25
Soprano – Amy Ní Fhearraigh – SEPTEMBER 15, 17
Stephanie Dufresne, Ronan Leahy
Conductor – Fergus Sheil
Director / Designer / Video Designer – Netia Jones
Lighting Designer – Sinéad Wallace
Sound Designer – David Sheppard
Associate Sound Designer – Kevin McGing
Choreographer – Muirne Bloomer
Assistant Director – Aoife Spillane-Hinks