Saturday 2 March 2024

Shamus O'Brien: withdrawn by the composer for political reasons, Stanford's most popular opera languished in the 20th century but all that seems set to change

Retrospect Opera's recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien in rehearsal
Retrospect Opera's recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien in rehearsal

Charles Villiers Stanford’s opera Shamus O'Brien premiered in 1896 in London. It was easily his most popular opera, running for over 80 performances in the West End before going on an extensive tour in Britain and Ireland, then in 1897 it also enjoyed a two-month run in New York. An explicitly Irish work, set against the backdrop of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Stanford withdrew the opera shortly before the First World War. As the politics of Home Rule intensified in the 1910s, Stanford, an ardent Unionist, worried that the opera might foment Irish nationalism and anti-English sentiment; the ban effectively remained in place until his death in March 1924.

King Baggot and Vivian Prescott in the 1912 silent film Shamus O'Brien
King Baggot and Vivian Prescott in the 1912 silent film Shamus O'Brien

But after that, the opera returned to the stage and was broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s. Since then the work has rather languished, though it was performed in Dublin in 1968 [see YouTube]. .

In 1952 (Stanford's centenary year), Ralph Vaughan Williams lamented that on Stanford's birthday instead of celebrating him with his masterpiece (RVW's words), Shamus O'Brien, Covent Garden was performing Bellini's Norma. Stanford's post-War reputation has rested heavily on his choral music and only gradually have his works in other genres been rediscovered and returned to their place in the repertoire. Stanford wrote nine operas and these still are not well known; currently only The Travelling Companion is available in a complete on disc [from SOMM Records]. Even a work like Shamus O'Brien has no recording.

This is all going to change as Retrospect Opera is releasing the first studio recording of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien with David Parry conducting the Orchestra of Scottish Opera plus soloists Brendan Collins, Anna Brady, Gemma Ni Bhriain, Ami Hewitt, Joseph Doody, Andrew Gavin and Rory Dunne with Irish piper Jarlath Henderson.

I recently caught up by Zoom with conductor David Parry who was in Scotland amid performances of Jonathan Dove's new opera, Marx in London, a work which David refers to as fantastic. It has been something of a hit, too, with audiences with Scottish Opera selling out the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Whilst Shamus O'Brien was popular in its time, David thinks that its very Irishness has mitigated against more recent performances in the complicated post-war political climate. Born in Dublin, Stanford was Anglo-Irish and the opera has a libretto by the Irish writer George H. Jessop (1852-1915), based on a poem by Anglo-Irish novelist and writer of Gothic tales, Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). It presents the Irish as proud patriots who outwit the rather dim English soldiers charged with keeping order; the heroes and heroines of the piece are Irish with Shamus O'Brien as something of a resistance leader.

But for David, the opera deserves to be heard; the music is of a very high quality and he describes the work as enchanting. Not only are there great ensembles in the piece but Stanford's use of the chorus to personify the people is a significant precursor to Britten's Peter Grimes. However, in Shamus O'Brien, the chorus is a more positive entity and David comments on the way Stanford handles the chorus as people heroically turning against the British and protecting Shamus O'Brien. The whole piece is expertly written with good orchestration and David feels that Stanford has a gift for melody, adding that he knows how to write for singers.

Unlike most of Stanford's other operas, Shamus O'Brien is more an opera comique with spoken dialogue, and there is quite a lot of this. For this reason, the cast on the recording uses a significant number of Irish singers so the five Irish characters were taken by singers from the Republic of Ireland (headed by Brendan Collins), with the English Captain Trevor sung by Joseph Doody. David even has a small role; he gleefully tells me about taking the speaking role of the (English) Police Sergeant, which was rather fun. This is not the first time he has appeared in one of his own recordings, and in Carmen (released as part of the Chandos Opera in English series) he has a line as the guide in Act Three. Whilst Shamus O'Brien is an opera comique, it is largely serious in intent, though there are comic moments. The opera's theme is a serious one, and the spoken dialogue emulates Irish dialect.

Whilst not every opera rediscovered on disc would work on stage, David feels that Shamus O'Brien would. It is constructed well and has everything an opera needs, including a good story, that is actually about something, with a swashbuckling hero and love interest. But for modern audiences, the opera's spoken elements mean that you would need Irish singers, we no longer accept the idea of English-speaking singers emulating an Irish accent on stage, and with the plethora of good Irish singers, there is no need. And David feels that it would be a good piece to perform in Ireland. In 2019, Wexford Festival Opera performed Stanford's The Veiled Prophet (written in 1877), and will give the modern premiere of Stanford's The Critic, or An Opera Rehearsed (written in 1915) as part of the 2024 festival, marking the 100th anniversary of Stanford's death.

Stanford: Shamus O'Brien - Retrospect Opera
David comments that the regular opera repertoire is quite narrow so it is important that lesser-known and neglected works are revived. He has always enjoyed reviving lesser-known operas and has been associated with the operas of Rossini. He enjoys performing these and adding that it is important to stage operas like Rossini's Ermione and Maometto II because they are good pieces that enrich the narrow repertory. He also adds that when he conducted Maometto II at Garsington they sold out eight performances. 

David wonders whether a contributory factor in early 19th-century Italian opera going out of fashion was precisely because they did not lend themselves to a naturalistic production style. Modern styles of production suit these early 19th-century Italian operas. Sometimes the plots can be a bit clunky and works suffer in naturalistic production. There are lots of emotional extremes in Donizetti's serious operas, so a more expressionist production works well. 

When we spoke, David was in the middle of five performances of Jonathan Dove's Marx in London, in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scottish Opera is not able to take the production to Inverness or Aberdeen because the orchestra (with triple woodwind and lots of percussion) is too large for the theatres there. Coming up on 16 March, he also has a concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, whilst his Summer is still somewhat up in the air. But in the Autumn he will be returning to; 's-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands for the International Vocal Competition

He has also been playing the piano a lot, and gave a two-piano recital with a pupil, performing music by Mozart, Schumann and Saint-Saens's Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, plus a paraphrase on Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe. (And they will be giving a piano duet recital too). He comments that there is a lot of good repertoire for two pianos, a lot of it not often performed partly through the logistics of having two pianos.

He remains enthusiastic about performing rarer repertoire, he is not giving up on that and adds that he is not giving up at all.

Stanford's Shamus O'Brien is released on 8 March 2024 by Retrospect Opera. David Parry conducts the Orchestra of Scottish Opera with Irish piper Jarlath Henderson, baritone Brendan Collins as Shamus, Anna Brady (dialogue) and mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain as Nora, soprano Ami Hewitt as Kitty, tenor Joseph Doody as Captain Trevor, tenor Andrew Gavin as Mike Murphy, and bass-baritone Rory Dunne as Father O’Flynn. Full details from Retrospect Opera

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