What is the first opera ever to be performed in Irish? There’s a question to challenge even the most ardent opera buff – the domain of Irish operas in Irish being, I should imagine, a particularly under-explored topic. The answer to the above question is Robert O’Dwyer’s Eithne which was last performed in 1910 in Dublin’s Gaeity Theatre. Featuring the best of Irish singers, Eithne was recorded for the very first time tonight in this concert performance of the opera. Given this rare, historic occasion, the NCH was, unsurprisingly, sold out.

Gavan Ring and Fergus Sheil © Ros Kavanagh
Gavan Ring and Fergus Sheil
© Ros Kavanagh

Written at a time of intense Irish nationalism and cultural revival, O’Dwyer cleverly used Irish mythology in a similar way that previous composers had used Norse, Greek and Roman mythology to produce a work of international importance.

The plot is based on the well-known Irish legend of Tír na nÓg (the land of eternal youth). The opera opens with the High King of Ireland’s dilemma on whom to elect as his heir. Eventually with the help of Nuala, the woman who looked after his son when his mother died, he endorses one of his sons called Ceart. During the subsequent hunt, the eponymous heroine impresses one and all with her beauty but bemoans her fate as she must wait for a hero to break the spell that holds her captive. Cue for Ceart to prove he is that hero and fight the Giant who guards Tír na nÓg. Our hero breaks the spell, wins Eithne and is proclaimed the new King.

O’Dwyer’s music owes much to the influence of early Wagner, with lush string writing, powerful climaxes, rousing choruses and hunting horns. It’s a challenging work for the singers on account of its unrelenting nature and its soaring lyricism. As a fluent Irish speaker, I found it odd to hear Irish being sung within this high European art form and yet its guttural utterances are not dissimilar to German and by the end Act 1, it seemed quite normal.

While all the singers were remarkably good, the highlight for me was the golden-voiced Robin Tritschler singing the brave hero Ceart. From the moment he entered his taut vibrato, effortless reach and warm tone were captivating, reminding me of that legendary Irish tenor John McCormack. Tritschler’s diction of the Irish was pellucid throughout and his final moment “Móra dhaoibh” (Greetings to you) was sheer unadulterated joy. He’s not the most dramatic of tenors: his reaction on seeing Eithne for the first time was beautifully measured but hardly enamoured. One wonders how his acting would have fared if this had been a fully staged production.

John Molloy and Robin Tritschler © Ros Kavanagh
John Molloy and Robin Tritschler
© Ros Kavanagh

Orla Boylan imbued her role as Eithne with distraught lamentations, her full voice projecting well throughout the hall. There was a piteous quality to her “Más tú an laoch” (If you are the hero) while her high B was nailed impressively. It took at little time for Imelda Drumm, who played Eithne’s mother Nuala, to warm up her voice, but by the time she was cajoling the king not to put his son to death she was in fine form. Her “An tráth a mbíonn an spéir fá scáil” (When is the sky hidden by cloud) was touchingly sung.

At times there was tenseness to Gavan Ring’s projection as High King of Ireland which hampered the production of his commanding tone. His acting was most convincing though and as we learned of the death of his hound in Act 1, we sympathised with him over it as his voice throbbed with emotion. John Molloy possessed a stentorian voice the like of which I have never before experienced, all of which was most apt given that he was the Giant. The brothers of Ceart were Art and Neart and were sung by Brendan Collins and Eamonn Mulhall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like characters whose parts were sung with gusto.

A special commendation goes to the Opera Theatre Company Chorus of Mná (maidens) and Laochra (warriors) who sang with vim and vigour in the rousing choruses and with moments of great delicacy in the more mystical moments of the opera.

Conductor Fergus Sheil had the sweep and trajectory of the music ever in mind as he conducted with great passion and energy throughout. The slightly reduced numbers of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra responded in like style providing a fine romantic sound throughout coupled with sensitive accompanying of the soloists.

This was a remarkable revival of an intriguing opera that deserves a full-staged version both in Ireland and abroad.  

****1