Musical Tricks

From left to right: Sarah Kilcoyne, Catherine Donnell, Oisín Ó Dálaigh and Kevin Neville

Musical Tricks

Brendan Finan reviews a recent staging of Michael William Balfe's 'The Sleeping Queen' – the second Irish opera revival in recent months.

So often, revivals of lost or disregarded art can be attributed to the passionate work of one person. In the case of The Sleeping Queen, the only operetta by nineteenth-century Irish composer Michael William Balfe, the passionate person is Una Hunt, who led the performance in the John Field Room at the National Concert Hall on 22 January. This is Hunt’s second outing with the work, after a concert performance at the National Library of Ireland in 2008. 

A tight plot
The Sleeping Queen is designed for easy staging: it’s scored for just four singers accompanied by piano. Hunt provided the accompaniment herself, with the roles of the Queen, her Maid of Honour Donna Agnes, Agnes’s protégé Philippe D’Aguilar, and the villainous Regent, who loathes Philippe, played by Catherine Donnelly, Sarah Kilcoyne, Oisín Ó Dálaigh, and Kevin Neville respectively. The set design was decidedly minimal, using the space of the John Field Room effectively, but decorating it only with light, and with a bed for the sleeping Queen.

The tight plot follows comic conventions: frivolous characters, devious tricks and mistaken identity. Philippe wishes a favour from the Queen, and Agnes begs the Regent to make the request on his behalf. The Regent, who lusts after Agnes as much as he loathes Philippe, agrees – in exchange for a moonlight rendezvous. A little later, the Queen, bored with matters of state, falls asleep. Philippe sees her and steals a kiss – a severe lapse in judgement, since to touch the unmarried Queen is high treason. The Regent gleefully sets about arranging a death sentence. To save Philippe, the Queen conspires to dupe his enemy. She meets the villain disguised as Agnes, and offers her hand for a kiss. Horrified to learn that he too has committed treason, the Regent quickly discovers a loophole: the Queen’s husband can pardon the offender. Problem solved. The Queen marries Philippe, he pardons the Regent, and that’s that.

Musical tricks
During her introductory remarks, Hunt noted the strong possibility of influence from Balfe’s operetta on the later work by Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m convinced: the works share a playfulness and a strong sense of tonal melody; even the libretto shares lyrical characteristics with the later pair’s work (A neighbouring king ‘Proposes an alliance / Offensive and defensive / With treaties most extensive / Immense and comprehensive…’).

The work has some nice musical tricks, though it burns its best one very early on: the second song features a rapid-fire duet between Agnes and the Regent; a ‘Repeat-after-me’-style oath, broken down to the syllable and shot back and forth between the two characters without room for breath or break. Later, when the Queen finds a fandango amongst the state documents, the music inevitably takes on that character.

The melodies are pretty, but pretty forgettable. Immediately after the performance, I had difficulty holding the tunes in my mind; now, having listened to a recording a couple of times, matters haven’t improved much. The music is competently composed, but very rarely surprising or fresh, the keys to a good melodic hook, and vital for a light operetta such as this. Balfe may have influenced Arthur Sullivan, but Sullivan’s music has the edge in catchiness. 

Genuinely funny
The young performers, all students at DIT conservatory, rose admirably to the challenges set by the work, as singers and as actors. In the first song, the Regent pompously declares, ‘I’m the Regent’ (in case the costume didn’t give it away), and Neville’s performance was all struts and sleazy smiles. Donnelly’s Queen, frivolous enough to sleep through matters of state, wore the vacant smile of an unburdened monarch. In a showy passage, her powerful voice ricocheted around the acoustics of the John Field Room. Kilcoyne’s Donna Agnes was a gentler, warmer contrast to the Queen’s vocal brightness, and Ó Dálaigh played Philippe as earnest and eager.

The Sleeping Queen is the second Irish opera revival in recent months, after Robert O’Dwyer’s Eithne in October, and, though Eithne’s ambitions were higher, The Sleeping Queen is the greater success. Although never inspiring or truly memorable, the work achieves what it sets out to achieve: a piece of light entertainment that is fun, and often – as is all too rare – genuinely funny.

Published on 7 February 2018

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at www.brendanfinan.net.

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