As much as Festivals like Wexford’s have accustomed us to forgotten operatic works, an Irish opera with a libretto in Irish was something practically unheard of. Eithne, composed in 1909 by Robert O’Dwyer on libretto by Tomás Ó Ceallaigh, is the first opera written in Irish, and was born as part of the Irish language revival between late 19th century and early 20th century. The score went lost for more than one hundred years, and finally rediscovered in 2012. Opera Theatre Company, with a great research input by baritone Gavan Ring, brought back to life this work on the 14th of October at the National Concert Hall.
The untold fear about this resurrection was that the opera would hold little more than a historic significance, and would be of special interest only for Irish speakers and Irish language enthusiasts. But this was absolutely not the case.
The subject of the opera is, fittingly, a mythological one and revolves around various family wrangles and a spell to be broken by love. Given the plot’s substantial staticity, the choice of having a concert performance rather than a full staging was probably a good one. But while the plot is quite flimsy and would easily alienate a modern audience, the beautiful words in the libretto (English subtitles were very helpful here!) bring the story much closer to us. If you then scratch the surface of any myth, you will always find universal human stories and feelings: in this case, siblings’s rivalry, treachery and virtue, anger and forgiveness, love longed for and finally found.
Musically, the score follows the trail of late 19th century music and is much closer to the German rather than to the Italian style. Although there were some very beautiful soloist parts, like Nuala’s aria in the first act (”When the sky is hidden by cloud”), or Cert’s one in the second act (“For years throughout my youth”), it’s the powerful choruses that always stole the scene, when galloping at full throttle together with the orchestra.
As for the cast and the performance, there was no sparing of talent, nor energy. Some of the best Irish singers, both younger and more established, were present in the evening. Renowned soprano Orla Boylan was Eithne while Gavan Ring was the High King of Ireland. This low baritone’s role was possibly stretching a bit Ring’s higher tessitura, but nonetheless you could sense his pleasure in being there as the soul of the show.
Robin Tritschler (as Eithne’s lover Cert) gave a stunning performance and delighted with his exquisite lyric tenor voice. Mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm’s voice left a lasting impression in the role of Nuala, and one would hope to see more of her on stage. Very familiar on Irish stages, bass John Molloy was a reliable choice for the role of the giant, and his entrance in the second act shook the air with his vocal and acting energy. Given the limited scope of the roles, you could not perhaps fully appreciate here two very fine singers, tenor Eamon Mulhall and baritone Brendan Collins (respectively the brothers Neart and Art).
The OTC chorus was outstanding throughout. Although you cannot identify individual singers’ voices in a chorus, this can never be more than the sum of its parts, and I was not surprised of spotting in it fine young singers like soprano Kelley Lonergan and mezzo Eimear McCarty Luddy. Finally, the National Symphony Orchestra was in gleaming form under conductor Fergus Sheil.
And what about Irish as a language for opera? It did work; although, as this ‘experiment’ demonstrates, as long as great music is present – like it was in this case – the libretto is secondary. Of course, for those who understand Irish, experiencing an opera sung in Irish must have been something quite unique and rewarding.