A Gaelic Night at the Opera

Gavan Ring (baritone) and Fergus Sheil (conductor) performing in ‘Eithne’

A Gaelic Night at the Opera

Opera could use more moments like this, particularly in Ireland, writes Brendan Finan about the recent performance of Robert O'Dwyer's Irish-language work 'Eithne', but what about the music?

What use is the word ‘premiere’? It suggests that an audience is getting something unique, something special – maybe even something historic. Robert O’Dwyer’s Eithne, the first opera ever performed in Irish, was given in concert performance on 14 October by Opera Theatre Company and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fergus Sheil. It was not a premiere, but it might as well have been. The work had not been performed since its second outing at the Gaiety Theatre in 1910, and Saturday’s audience – erupting into applause even as the last chord sounded – seemed to think they had just heard something special.

The performers, too, seemed to have the sense that they were reviving a work of historical significance, and all – cast, choir, and orchestra – rose to the challenge. The cast was pulled from the stratosphere of Irish opera singers, with Orla Boylan in the title role and Robin Tritschler as the male lead, Ceart.

Ceart the hero
The plot sees, in the first act, Gavan Ring’s High King of Ireland seeking an heir. He eventually selects his eldest son, Ceart, after some careful persuasion by Nuala, Ceart’s former nursemaid, played by Imelda Drumm.

In the second act, the High King and Ceart, along with Ceart’s conniving brothers Neart and Art (Eamon Mulhall and Brendan Collins), travel to Tír na nÓg, in pursuit of a mysterious bird. The bird is Eithne, cursed by her father, the King of Tír na nÓg (Robert McAllister), to take that form until a worthy warrior wins her. Naturally, the hero is Ceart, who defeats in combat the Giant who guards Tír na nÓg (played by John Molloy, whose fittingly enormous voice frankly steals every scene he’s in), then the King of Tír na nÓg himself, and finally his own brothers, to claim his bride.

Irish in vogue
In hearing the music, perhaps the most striking thing is often the language itself. There was a minor vogue in the early twentieth century for writing opera in the Irish language, but, for a variety of reasons, it never caught on. It is a pity, because the language suits the medium, perhaps surprisingly well. It is bold, earthy and rich, with hard, throaty consonants and long, warm vowels.

When it came to the music, I couldn’t help but feel out-of-step with the audience’s rapturous response, in spite of both the historical significance of the work and the quality of its performance. A review of the 1909 première described O’Dwyer, somewhat damningly, as influenced by ‘what he knows of Wagner’. That more or less gets at the core of the music, in ways both positive and negative. The music of Eithne is superficially Wagnerian: it has Wagner’s warmth of tone, his full-bodied orchestral sound, but it lacks Wagner’s mastery of structure and counterpoint.

What it really lacks, though, is Wagner’s adventurousness. Any time the harmony approaches something daring, it gets cold feet and backs away. In the turbulent musical climate a century ago, it must have felt downright old-fashioned.

Even to a sceptic, though, the work has merits. As a general rule, the more dominant the voices, the better the music. For all that O’Dwyer’s orchestral writing can be unimaginative, his vocal counterpoint is tight. There are several charming duos and trios, and some bright, almost Mahlerian songs for the female section of the choir.

And the composition integrates the modes of Irish traditional music in ways new to me, closer to the nationalistic styles of Bohemian composers. The music is firmly in the Romantic idiom, but the lilt of the melodies is subtly Irish.

First opera
’s compositional flaws are journeyman flaws; as a composer, O’Dwyer was yet to find both his voice and his feet. It is a shame in that sense that this was his only major work. It could have made a very effective first opera, if only he had written more. As a historic document and a demonstration of the suitability of Irish as an operatic language, the performance was a worthy revival.

And yet, only a partial revival. Even as a concert performance, the work brought out as full and enthusiastic an audience as I have seen in the National Concert Hall; an audience ready to love the work. Opera could use more moments like that, particularly in Ireland. Despite my reservations about the music, I would celebrate a full staging. Is that too much to hope for? Maybe. But the Gaiety still stands.

Opera Theatre Company’s next production, Dubliners by Andrew Synnott and Arthur Riordan, will run at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, on 9–11 November. For more, visit opera.ie.

The full performance of Eithne can be viewed below.

Published on 2 November 2017

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit www.brendanfinan.net.

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