BWW Review: OTSL and Alarm Will Sound Present Harrowing THE HUNGER at the Touhill
I attended the world premiere of THE HUNGER, a new operatic work by Donnacha Dennehy in collaboration with the group Alarm Will Sound, and co-produced by Opera Theatre of St. Louis this weekend, and I was blown away by how affecting and compelling this 90 minute piece is. It's a multi-media exercise that attempts to convey a sense of the seven year famine that Ireland suffered through from 1845 - 1852. It was a time of starvation and widespread disease that saw many families emigrate to other countries, cutting the overall population by a nearly a quarter. This production at the Touhill (September 17, 2016) is both harrowing and invigorating in equal measure, and an absolute must-see for people interested in modern opera.
Details, facts, and the historical context for the famine are provided by "talking heads"; interviews by director Tom Creed, that pop up on strategically placed video monitors. Noam Chomsky, Maureen Murphy, Branko Milanovic, Paul Krugman, and Megan Vaughan, relate various information that enlightens and saddens. It's a crime that any country on this planet should have had to suffer through an extended famine, particularly when help could have been forthcoming, if not for certain attitudes and political opinions that existed when this occurred. The fact is, Britain wouldn't feed its own poor, much less take on any responsibility for the suffering souls on the emerald isle.
Katherine Manley (soprano) and Iarla O Lionaird (sean nos) contribute astounding vocals graced with amazing power and clarity, with Manley representing someone on the outside looking in who's giving voice to the "voiceless", while Lionaird enacts the story of a man who leaves behind his starving children, walking a great distance to get a ration of food, only to be denied once he reaches his destination. We then see him burying a child, barely able to complete the task due to his own weakness from hunger, but determined to see it through.
Dennehy takes Irish folk music (in the sean nos style) and places it over a bed of dissonance that acts to ratchet up the tension considerably. With the monitors translating the words, we're confronted with the anguished cries of a man who can no longer suffer his situation. This is a unique and demanding work made real by Alarm Will Sound, an ensemble conducted by Alan Pierson, that has the talent necessary to pull off this unconventional score. And, they do it masterfully. The music isn't strictly atonal by any stretch, in fact it's filled with several beautifully flowing sections that recall Philip Glass, or snatches of John Adams, but it's never done in a derivative manner.
Director Tom Creed provides a lot of things for us to focus on. The set and video designs by Jim Findlay provide two of them, while the group Alarm Will Sound provides another. The set itself is an amazing structure that splits the stage sideways, and features steps covered in earth and fauna, depicting the rocky terrain of Ireland. Christopher Kuhl's lighting design keeps the action clearly in focus, and Tilly Grimes' costumes recall the period of this piece.
Special mention should be made of the work of Alarm Will Sound which includes: Erin Lesser (flutes, piccolo), Christa Robinson (oboe), Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), Michael Harley (bassoon), Matt Marks (horn), Matt Mead (trumpet), Michael Clayville (trombone), Chris Thompson (percussion), Matt Smallcomb (percussion), John Orfe (piano), Caleb Burhans (violin), Courtney Orlando (violin), Stefan Freund (cello), and Logan Coale (bass). It's a treat for the eyes and ears to hear them perform this intriguing score with such skill.
THE HUNGER premiered at the Blanch M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on September 17, 2016. If you missed it, you missed a glimpse of modern opera at its finest and most challenging.