The biggest stigma associated with opera in Ireland is not that it is an elitist art form, but that it is not “Irish”, and that it doesn’t belong to Irish culture, more of a recent import, like pasta, or avocado. This is, of course, not true and can be proven wrong in a number of ways, from noting the names of internationally renowned 19th- and 20th-century Irish opera composers and singers, to the fact that major European operas have had an audience in Ireland for at least the past couple of centuries.

Orla Boylan, Fergus Sheil, Anna Devin and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra © Ste Murray
Orla Boylan, Fergus Sheil, Anna Devin and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra
© Ste Murray

Whatever one may believe, the launch of Irish National Opera on Tuesday tells us one thing for sure: opera has a bright future in Ireland. The new company fills the almost surreal void left in the Irish opera world by the closure of Opera Ireland in 2011. Since then, there have been even excellent local productions of classic works, as well as brand new Irish operas being created and staged, but the output has been sparse and certainly less than well funded by the government.

Irish National Opera has merged the executive teams of two pre-existing companies: Opera Theatre Company and Wide Open Opera, both headed up by artistic director Fergus Sheil. For anybody who has followed the productions of these two companies in recent years, it will be very clear that Irish opera lovers have much to look forward to. Once the “fearless, risk-taking creativity” (to quote my own review) and vibrant energy consistently demonstrated in the past by Sheil will be supported by appropriate funding, who will put a limit on what Ireland can still contribute to opera’s history?    

INO’s inaugural and celebratory concert couldn't have had a better title than “The Big Bang!”. Twelve of the best Irish singers paraded their gifts, delivering one superb performance after another in the sold-out hall. The programme, which ranged over three centuries of opera, offered a sample of the breadth of repertoire that INO is planning to explore and the range of Irish voices that it can call on.

The thrilling brass outbursts of the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin made a fitting start to the concert, with unapologetically loud trombones. The truly unique colour of mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm’s expansive voice was utterly seductive in “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and there should be much to look forward to in her singing Amneris in the upcoming INO’s Aida. Sharon Carty gave a clear account of “Addio, o miei sospiri” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, with sensitive phrasing and mastery of the coloratura.

Soprano Anna Devin was simply perfect in “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, while bass-baritone Padraic Rowan seriously impressed with “Là del ciel nell'arcano profondo” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola; it was frankly disorienting to hear such a rich voice and vivid performance from such a young singer.

Fergus Sheil and singers © Ste Murray
Fergus Sheil and singers
© Ste Murray

“Bass” in Ireland is commonly synonymous with John Molloy; and he never disappoints. He brought to life a rarely performed aria from an opera by William Wallace, Maritana (“Hear Me Gentle Maritana... The Mariner And His Barque”) with his excitingly deep-toned voice and lively interpretation.

Through vocal bravura and much physical acting, Jennifer Davis and Gavan Ring skilfully delivered the pathos of the final duet from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, notwithstanding the hardly accessible language of the opera. Davis must be the most accomplished of all young Irish sopranos. She couples the natural gift of a luscious and powerful voice to an always heartfelt acting.

A noticeable absence in the concert was that of a soloist tenor, exception made for the backstage voice of Patrick Hyland as Alfredo during Violetta’s Act 1 scene from La traviata. By the very pleasant sample of his voice from off-stage, I’d certainly like to hear more from him. The orchestral contributions from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under INO’s artistic director, conductor Fergus Sheil, were lustrous, the evening ending with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

*****