Robert O’Dwyer: Eithne (1909)

Opera in two acts and four tableaux (with a twenty-five minute intermission).

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes.

If I gave you an English opera last time, here is an Irish opera!

Now for something a little bit more exotic than usual! I decided something a bit different was in order.

Generally considered to be the first opera written and performed in the Irish language, Eithne is a complex web of byzantine plot and Irish romanticism from the first decade of the 20th century. Although only performed in concert format in 1909, it was fully staged in May 1910 at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Over the intervening 109 years the orchestral score has been lost, and the opera saw no further productions in the 20th century. It has since been revived (and re-orchestrated) by the Irish National Opera in 2017 and the opera has been recorded and released on album in 2019.

I don’t speak or understand more than about four words in Irish (I am also not even remotely of Irish ancestry, so my review is totally unbiased by ethnic feeling and focused entirely on what I think of the music and the story), so things like scenery are approximate. I try to be as accurate as possible with characters, however, but I am not working with even a copy of the libretto as apart from an unavailable vocal score (it is on IMSLP, but it is a prohibitively large file although it does include a full English-language translation of the Irish), it doesn’t seem to have been published on its own.

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SETTING: Pre-Christian Ireland. The opera opens with the nominations for the successor of the High King of Ireland (baritone), even though he is still alive. Although his eldest son Ceart (tenor) is nominated, an enemy (Duffach) claims that Ceart killed the beloved hound of the High King. The royal nursemaid Nuala (mezzo-soprano), a woman with a mysterious backstory, tells the High King that in fact it was the two half-brothers of Ceart (the originally named Neart and Art, tenor and bass respectively) who killed the hound. The High King sentences the brothers to death, but Nuala (and a magical bird) manage to soften him and he pardons them, declares Ceart his heir, and calls for a hunt. Who is this magical bird? And where the heck is Eithne (soprano, although before her vocal entrance represented in her avionic form by a flute soloist)? Well, in act two it turns out during the hunt that they encounter her in her true form and she reveals that she is the Princess of Tir na nOg, having been cursed by her father to be a bird until a powerful hero wins her hand in marriage. Ceart seeks to win her, but the King of Tir na nOg tells him that only if he wins Eithne from his enemies (his own half-brothers) can he claim her and break the spell.  This is only about half of the plot, but I didn’t want to give too many spoilers.

LINK TO TRACT LIST ON YOUTUBE:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_kghSuna9d_CzpNoWVUr3QBEDSVSkfoboE

(The Video should be available at the bottom of this review and it should upload the 46 tract videos here.)

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Some location near or in the castle of the High King. (42 minutes)

4: Nuair a seidtear an stoc an shleibh The operas starts off well enough with some happy arpeggios and some vaguely mystical music before the curtain rises and the people assemble for the election of the successor to the current High King. A series of choruses **, at first only men then the women arrive. The High King addresses the people (the tenors respond), more good chorusing for a very long.

12: Dia bheatha an Ri A lovely march as the High King arrives is followed by an equally good chorus **.

15: Beannaim duit, a Ri We then pass over into a Wagnerian recitative as the King confronts Ceart over the accusation that he killed the hound. At first deep and dark, Ceart gets a very lovely outing **.

19: Le cein gan aird Nuala tries to soften the King in a homely aria * which, if not for the language, could have been written by Mussorgsky.

22: Niorbh e A climactic ensemble, not out of place in a mid-19th century Italian opera **. Things return to Nuala, the High King, Ceart, and Neart and Art, and swim along well until the flutes indicate the arrival of the magical bird.

28: An tratha a mbionn an speir fa scail Another narration for Nuala as she tries to save Neart and Art **, the harp and the movement of this monologue (it eventually turns almost into a waltz) gives it two stars.

37: Alainn coirius sloigh na nGael-fhear The plot and the music just continue on their way until a finale climactic ensemble ends the act as the High King announces the hunt and the royal party go off **.

ACT 2: (65 minutes)

Scene 1: An enchanted forest glen.

5: Ach nuair do chuala  After a woodsy entr′acte, the High King comes on delivering what seems at first to be a dull aria but he finishes very well with a waltz-like tune ** and finds Eithne (or maybe she finds him?).

10: Á! Éist! Eventually the three sons arrive, the High King declares he must capture the mysterious bird that calls to him and all three sons plot to take her as a female chorus strikingly breaks through ** in the distance being very mysterious but pretty about it. They eventually move closer and in the second outing the ensemble takes a classical turn, seeming more like an 18th century fugue.

13: Ochon, da mbeadh The first utterance of Eithne **: the men are amazed, the female chorus bursts into a third inning with something half-way between Puccini and a musical chorus number as the women reveal that they are maids of Princess Eithne, daughter of the King of Tir na nOg, the entrance of whose kingdom is located within a nearby cave. The Princess has been enchanted with a curse causing her to maintain bird-form that can only be broken when a mortal hero restores the Queen of Tir na nOg to the King (this involves a lot of really complicated background including a curse levelled by the King upon his Queen condemning her to mortal life on earth which even he can not revoke). Rather lovely. Neart and Art grump amongst themselves.

19: Le blianta feadh Another lovely monologue for Ceart ** as he prepares to face the Guardian Spirit of the Cave.

22: Gabhaig siar a dhaoscair ghranna! The ballad of the Guardian Spirit **, a sparkling bass aria (chimes included!). He tells Ceart that if he wants Eithne, he will have to defeat the King and his magic. 

29: Ma ta neart i gcroi A very good tune ** as the duet starts to wrap up and the scene ends with the chorus of the maids in the background as Ceart enters the cave.

Scene 2: A hall in the castle of the King of Tir na nOg.

34: Fagaig go foill me Eithne sings of her sad fate *, again sounding like it is an Irish translation of something by a thirty-something Verdi. The chorus livens things up a bit but she quickly goes back to being very depressed. Overall a lyrical number, but sober and static in a classical sense.

40: Deir mo chroi ar luth-chrith The love duet ** starts off quietly as Ceart finds Eithne. This is like stepping into a bel canto time machine, at times it sounds as if we are listening to Donizetti, Bellini, or maybe Erkel, but the singers are doing their thing in Irish and not Italian or Hungarian!

46: O Ceard seo do chim? The lovers are interrupted by the King of Tir na nOg. Ceart defeats his magic ** which causes Nuala to appear and it is revealed that she is the Queen of  Tir na nOg! She is restored as the King recognizes her.

49: Si mo ghra The scene ends with a gentle reunion ensemble for the royal family of Tir na nOg *. The King tells Ceart that if he is to marry Eithne, he must rescue her on human terms and defeat her captors in mortal combat.

Scene 3: The forest glen as in scene 1.

54: A march straight out of a Bach practice book follows as the scenery changes back *. The Guardian Spirit declares that his work is done as Eithne encounters Neart and Art (who have been waiting outside the cave) and they then capture her. Ceart arrives on the scene rather romantically.

58: Failte roimhe! Flaith na feile! A magnificent fugal chorus (this time mixed chorus) *** as the courtiers arrive and Ceart realizes that Eithne is being held by his step-brothers and rescues her. The death of the High King is announced by a herald, the court mourns (briefly).

63: Na caoinig dalta na nDeithe The finale is a lovely rising ensemble ** leading to a final march as Ceart is declared High King and Eithne his Queen to general rejoicing.

COMMENTS:

What most strikes one about Eithne, other than of course the usage of the Irish language in an opera, is how incredibly retro the score is. There is no indication at all from the music that this operas was written in 1908-09, it could just as well have been written by Smetana or any other 19th century composer in the 1860s or 1870s really. Although it is through-composed (there are no natural number breaks in the score) and in many ways stylistically a cross between Wagner (the flute-based leitmotif which represents Eithne) and Dvorak or later period Smetana (Eithne could be seen as an Irish Libuše as the former opera served the same nationalistic purpose as the Czech opera, if unsuccessfully) the most modern thing about the score is the lack of a prelude or overture. The ensembles involve 19th century style racing crescendo climaxes that would not be out of place in Bellini, late Donizetti, or even early Verdi (the influence of bel canto is so obvious). The plot is weirdly original, using what might seem like theatrical cliches but with rather inventive interpretation. Nuala could be Ruth in Pirates of Penzance, but she isn’t. Neart and Art could be meaningless secondary characters instead of the villains who ultimately bring Ceart to the circumstances he needs to break the spell. Ceart seems to be the dominate vocal part, as there is surprisingly little of the title character. Musically the opera is lush and gentle, constantly lyrical, nothing ornery in the slightest, just refreshing and lovely. Dramatically the opera is rather too rapidly paced, with most of the action (such as it is) concentrated in the multi-scene act 2. This brevity robs the story of any epic quality it probably really should have (like if Gone With the Wind were reduced to four scenes and a less than two hour operatic frame work. Incidentally I did this when I was a teenager and I even had the libretto translated into French!) The less than two hour running time doesn’t really help to express what really should be a much longer composition (say around an hour longer). So the story is more of a beta, but the music is rather alpha-level, so maybe a B+/A- will do?

2 thoughts on “Robert O’Dwyer: Eithne (1909)

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