Robert O'Dwyer - Eithne
Opera Theatre Company, Dublin - 2017
Fergus Sheil, Orla Boylan, Gavan Ring, Robin Tritschler, Brendan Collins, Eamonn Mulhall, Imelda Drumm, John Molloy, Robert McAllister, Rachel Croash, Eoghan Desmond, Fearghal Curtis, Conor Breen
National Concert Hall, Dublin - 14th October 2017
Economies of scale and a troubled political history have prevented the idea of a national opera from ever really being able to establish a foothold in Ireland. It's only recently that steps have been taken to form a national opera company to replace Opera Ireland, one of the arts victims of the economic crisis that struck Ireland almost a decade ago. Irish National Opera doesn't officially come into being until 2018, but in the meantime a few of the component groups that will form the new company have been working hard to keep opera alive in the country. There has been a resurgence in contemporary opera commissions in recent years and now, quite thrillingly, there's been the rediscovery of one of the most important works in the history of Irish opera, Robert O'Dwyer's Eithne.
Eithne has the distinction of being the first full-scale opera composed in the Irish language. It was composed in 1909 by Robert O'Dwyer, who was born in Bristol of Irish parents, and the opera was last performed at the Gaiety theatre in Dublin in 1910. As the fate of Ireland was caught up in the subsequent years with the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, O'Dwyer's Irish language opera was lost and only rediscovered when the orchestral score came up for auction in 2012. It was an occasion of some national pride then to have the opera - unheard for over 100 years - reconstructed, revived and performed once again in 2017 by the Opera Theatre Company. While Eithne is no lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and even an impressive work, and it certainly impressed the audience who came to see in a one-off concert performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
An unheard work by an unheard of composer, it was difficult to imagine beforehand what to expect from Eithne and just how it was going to sound. The period of composition and the subject based on Celtic mythology however gave a few important clues and indeed the few on-line rehearsal clips posted in advance suggested a lush post-Wagnerian romanticism. In the event, there is little that is Wagnerian or even Straussian in Eithne's scale or ambition, and the music itself isn't particularly Celtic sounding, although there is a fairy-tale element to the harp music and a folk element in some of the solo violin playing. It's the rhythms and sounds of the Irish language however that provides a more recognisable character for the folk legend of Eithne, aligning it more closely to Dvořák and the fairy-tale romantic character of Rusalka.
There is a recognisable connection with Die Zauberflote and Siegfried and a romantic element too in the heroic endeavours of Ceart to become the High King of Ireland. Based on the legend of Éan an cheoil bhinn (The bird of sweet music), the Irish language libretto for Eithne was composed by the noted academic and playwright Tomás Ó Ceallaigh. In the first half of the opera, characterised by rousing choral music, Ceart is unanimously acclaimed by the people to be the successor to the High King, but his half-brothers Neart and Art conspire against him, claiming that he is responsible for the killing of the king's favourite hound. Nuala, who has brought Ceart up since the death of his mother, intervenes on his behalf and, evoking the songs of the birds when she speaks, she convinces the King of the truth and inspires him even to forgive Neart and Art.
The bird's song is heard again in the second half of the opera, and it leads the King away from the hunt. Surrounded by maidens, Eithne appears and tells of her fate, that she and her mother (Nuala) have been held captive in a spell by her father the King of Tír na nÓg (the legendary Land of Youth in Irish folklore). Ceart steps forward to challenge the Guardian Spirit of Tír na nÓg and beating him he acquires a magical ring, sword and cloak that will help him defeat the King. In order to break the spell however, Ceart has other challenges to face and, proving his worth as a warrior, as a worthy husband for Eithne and, as the death of his father is announced, as the High King of Ireland.
Evidently, there's enough magic and drama in Eithne for it to be a fine stage spectacle, and perhaps one day we might get the opportunity to see it that way, but this first and only presentation of Robert O'Dwyer's rediscovered work was presented to the Dublin audience in concert performance, where it was recorded for a future CD release. Even in concert performance, this was an impressive way to experience the opera, as it gave great opportunity not only to hear the individual singers but the work of the large chorus - so prominent through - and the terrific playing of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fergus Sheil, giving the lush melodic musical qualities of the work central stage.
Despite the title of the opera being granted to Eithne, who only makes an appearance late in the opera, it was Robin Tritschler's Ceart who was unquestionably the star performance of the night. The tenor has a beautifully light lyrical tone that is reminiscent of Klaus Florian Vogt in one or two places but with a little more 'body'. A virtuous, heroic tone is required for Ceart - if not quite of the Heldentenor variety - and Tritschler delivered that in abundance. The role of Eithne has challenges, but not perhaps of the Wagnerian level either, and I thought Orla Boylan (who I last saw singing the big role of Turandot) was a little too large a voice for the role in that respect, and there was some wavering as she tried to fit to the lyrical flow. Boylan however certainly carried the romantic heroism of the role with all the essential Irish qualities that are necessary there in her voice.
There were other impressive performances in Irish-singing cast. John Molloy's smooth baritone boomed imperiously as the rumbling Giant, the Guardian Spirit of Tír na nÓg. Nuala too has a substantial presence in the first act, and singing along to the flute birdsong accompaniment, Imelda Drumm was absolutely captivating. Gavan Ring, who was instrumental in bringing Eithne back to the stage, sang the role of the High King of Ireland wonderfully and in full possession of the elevated status of the role. The heightened Irish legend qualities were boosted considerably by the chorus of the Opera Theatre Company, bringing the audience to its feet at the opera's epic conclusion. It now seems that Irish national opera not only as a future, but it now has a glorious past history to look back on as well.
Links: Opera Theatre Company, Irish National Opera, RTE webcast