Alarm Will Sound presented a concert version of the opera The Hunger by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy at the Kennedy Center Wednesday night. It is a most curious mash of video interviews with esteemed contemporary economists and historians, biographical records from the mid-1800’s, singing in English and Gaelic, a 16-person orchestra on stage, and a pulsating through-composed score.
The story is a most important one. We’ve all heard about Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid nineteenth century. (Like many in America, my forefathers were part of the fabric of that bit of history. Having been run out of Scotland for allegedly sheep raiding on the border, then settling in Ireland for many generations, they decamped again to travel to America.) Even with my heritage, in learning about The Great Famine in school, it was presented as a footnote and generally communicated as a little “push” to give people the opportunity for coming over to this country.
Composer Donnacha Dennehy has done a valuable service in addressing this wrenching chapter in Irish history. He uses as his lens the work of Asenath Nicholson, a woman who traveled from this side of the Atlantic to Ireland during the Famine to interview and record what was happening on Ireland’s west coast.
Soprano Katherine Manley sings the role of Nicholson, and I imagine the libretto comes directly from her records. Manley is an accomplished singer and uses language well. Her voice sits close enough to speech to be able to follow most but not all of the text. She is at her best, as is the score, in the emotional finale where she sings repeatedly, “I shall never forget this.”
The other character in the current version of the opera, Man, is performed by a sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. I had heard him sing as part of the opening of the Irish Festival, but to hear him sing in this context was most powerful indeed. His role is to provide dramatic counterpoint to Nicholson’s outsider’s viewpoint and to give voice, literally, to the tragedy of having so little preserved from the perspective of the people who were going through this, what was described as “a great unwonted silence.”
Less successful was the inclusion of the video interviews flashing periodically on five video screens, sometimes one at a time but at key points all roaring at once. Of course having celebrity people such as linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky and economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman makes the piece a curiosity. But I was immediately made aware of the jargon the various disciplines represented. Hearing the most unmusical phrases “market system” and “market economy” became grating. Also, their discourse was rather thick and buried by the through composition of the score. Branko Milanovic and Megan Vaughan were almost completely unintelligible due to their accents.
Alarm Will Sound
Performed June 1, 2016
Details and tickets
Minimally, I would hope that the full production will incorporate the old tried and true device used in opera: surtitles. This would also be important to translate the sean nós singer.
Dennehy clearly wants not only to set the record straight about the Great Famine of Ireland but to make that history relevant by letting it speak to similar crises going on today. All the speakers weigh in on England’s shameful role and colonial callousness in allowing so many Irish to starve while increasing Irish food exports. But he also wants to challenge modern “developed” societies not to do the same while people are dying in famines going on in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the piece works best when the music carries the story of the two characters. It becomes heavy when political diatribes intrude.
Dennehy’s music is dense and strongly rhythmic not unlike the writing of Philip Glass or some of John Adams. I liked the core sound, but the instrumental sections of the work have not at yet achieved enough differentiation in their emotional colors. Alan Pierson, conductor of Alarm Will Sound, gave the work a very good hearing and kept the orchestra to a brisk pace.
It will be presented in a full production as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) later this year. I should like to see the finished piece.
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes without an intermission
Alarm Will Sound. Composed by Donnacha Dennehy. Directed by Alan Pierson. Performed by Katherine Manley and Iarla Ó Lionáird. Produced by Theatre Lovett now being presented as part of Ireland 100 at the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith