This will be the eleventh year of the Opera Gala at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, a well established annual event and a little gem in the opera scene in the Dublin area. The Gala is organised by DLR Glasthule Opera, brainchild of Anne-Marie O’Sullivan.
Promising young singers are showcased alongside more established ones, in a program full of popular arias. The singers are chosen by O’Sullivan herself, who knows a thing or two about singing being the former Head of Opera and vocal studies at DIT. You can actually have fun in the evening taking a guess at who may become the next opera star. A few years ago at one of the Galas, for example, I noticed a very self-confident young soprano, Jennifer Davis. Next week Davis will be replacing star soprano Kristine Opolais in the ROH production of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the role of Elsa.
The 20-piece Glasthule Orchestra will be conducted by David Brophy. I have seen in the past a special alchemy in this orchestra-conductor combination, resulting in a particularly effortless and smooth sound. The very popular bass John Molloy will host the event and will also perform some arias during the evening.
This year the program will include arias from The magic flute, The marriage of Figaro, Il ratto del serraglio, Don Giovanni, La Cenerentola, the Barber of Seville, L’Elisir d’Amore, Linda di Chamonix, Don Pasquale and arias from Handel. The singers will be sopranos Rachel Croash and Amy Hewitt, mezzo Sinead O’Kelly, tenor James McCreanor and bass Rory Dunne.
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.