Stanford: Shamus O’Brien

Brendan Collins, Gemma Ní Bhriain, Anna Brady, Andrew Gavin, Rory Dunne, Ami Hewitt, Joseph Doody, Opera Bohemia Voices, Orchestra of Scottish Opera conducted by David Parry.

Retrospect Opera RO011

Nicely timed to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the composer’s death, Retrospect Opera seem to be very well placed to draw attention to the often neglected operas of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Better known by far for his sacred choral music, Stanford dedicated considerable effort to stage compositions, completing no fewer than nine operas. Of these, The Travelling Companion is one of the highest rated by critics today. An enormous critical success at the time of its writing, however, was Shamus O’Brien, which has since seemed rather doomed to obscurity until the efforts of Retrospect Opera have brought the work to life once again.

The libretto by George Henry Jessop is adapted from a (probably satirical) poem by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. The story revolves around the titular Shamus, as he is hunted by the English as an Irish rebel in 1798. The political backdrop of this story is somewhat diluted by the villainous Mike, who has designs on Shamus’ wife Nora, rendering the situation a romantic comedy perhaps more than a story of political intrigue. The music marries Stanford’s naturally conservative musical idiom (though far from uncharacteristic for the time) to more adventurous forays into Irish folk music, resulting in a distinct anglo-Irish flavour. There is, incidentally, a wonderful reel toward the end of the first act played on traditional instruments. Critic Nigel Burton views the work overall in quite a negative light, citing a lack of many good tunes. Based on the evidence of the recording, I’d perhaps say this view is a tad harsh and the work does boast an entertaining score, on the whole, with a handful of good tunes (only a handful, mind). It is, however, in both libretto and music, highly uneven. The move from comic love triangle in the first act to the title character awaiting execution in the second is lurching and ungainly, plus Stanford seems to handle the more serious dramatic music better than the folksy comic fare of the first act, which is riddled with stereotypes. In fact, although the composer was Anglo-Irish himself (though this is somewhat contested), the reel aside, the music seldom amounts to more than caricature, perhaps hinting at the more satirical aspect of the music.

The text is also problematic and littered with pretty much all of the very worst “Oirish” (Dunne’s characterisation) cliches you can imagine. Given the historical vintage, some of this is certainly understandable and in Rory Dunne’s superbly balanced essay in the booklet, he seeks to emphasise the naive exoticism in the portrayal of Ireland, suggesting the historical context is indeed relevant. Of course, now, many a G&S operetta has some updating of the spoken text, serving to either update the topical references or to illustrate their original satirical touch-points a little better. This is not the case in Retrospect’s release, presumably in the interest of representing the work in as accurate a historical performance as possible, but it does rather highlight this as a weakness in the work. Thankfully, the song lyrics do boast rather better jokes and considerable wit in their setting.

The cast is strong and I was particularly glad that the Irish roles are taken by Irish singers, meaning that there is a genuine authenticity in the performance that goes some distance to reducing the problems of the text. Brendan Collins as Shamus is somewhat conspicuously absent for much of the first act (due to his character being in hiding). He does not sing until track 11 in fact, when he presents us with a rousing number with a nationalistic flair. Collins proves precisely the heroic baritone you would wish of such a role, whilst still able to convey the pathos and vulnerability required of him in the second act. The role of his wife Nora is taken by Gemma Ní Bhriain, though her dialogue is performed by Anna Brady. Ní Bhriain is a wonderfully sweet soprano, who conveys a sense of innocence as well as the desperate loyalty to her husband lending a great emotional punch to her role. Credit also to Brady, who marries her spoken performance perfectly to her counterpart’s singing role. Andrew Gavin is a wonderfully malevolent (though broadly comic) antagonist Mike Murphy, while the role of Nora’s Sister (also blessed with some of the best jokes in the piece) is played with great attitude by Ami Hewitt. Baritone Rory Dunne, who penned the article mentioned earlier, plays Father O’Flynn, a somewhat stereotyped role, managing to humanise him to quite a degree, while tenor Joseph Doody sings the role of English Soldier Captain Trevor. Doody’s sweet tenor serves wonderfully in the ballads, while as an actor he chooses to play up the “wetness” of the character making as much a caricature of the English character as the text makes of the Irish ones. Occasional problems do arise in the ensemble sections, as the singers somehow don’t always blend when several characters sing at once, while they are all fine soloists. The chorus and orchestra play and sing with great spirit conjuring the vivid colours of Stanford’s score, allowing the listener to imagine a production.

Imagining is the best tool at any listener’s disposal with this recording, as this really is recording as historical document. At no point was I convinced that the work was strong enough to warrant modern stagings. Rather, we gain insight into an entertainment of the past and the recording is ideal in serving this purpose: we are well supplied with a clear and crisp rendering of the score and it is presented in a generous package with insightful essays in the sizeable booklet as well as a complete libretto. For those willing to really engage with theatre of the past, a commendable release. DA

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