Unearthing the almost-forgotten gems of Irish opera

Una Hunt

Una Hunt is on a mission to address neglect. The pianist and historian has steadily mined the archives to unearth forgotten gems of 19th classical music by Irish composers.

Hunt is in the vanguard of a movement shedding some 21st century light on work by composers who were enormously popular on the international scene before changing fashions and shifting ideas of Irishness threw a veil of obscurity over their works.

At the summer opera festival in Lismore, Co Waterford, over the next few days, Hunt is curator of the Recollections of Ireland strand and producer/director of The Sleeping Queen.

Rebranded as the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, the event celebrates its 10th year with a production of Don Pasquale, a comic masterpiece by Donizetti as the centre piece.

This year the programme has expanded to include a second opera. 

The Sleeping Queen, a one act operetta by William Michael Balfe will be revived for an afternoon performance as part of a programme that spills over from the stable yard theatre into the churches and the historic houses dubbed the “handsome seats of gentlemen” by William Makepeace Thackery.

The drawing rooms of country demesnes will be the elegant settings for chamber music and opera gems by Balfe and contemporaries that include Wallace, Stanford and George Osborne as part of a series of day time recitals curated by Hunt for the festival.

Balfe was born in Dublin in 1808. The street where the Westbury Hotel is located was renamed in 1917 in his honour. 

He was unusual in being both singer and composer.

“As a young man he spent several years in France and Italy as a professional baritone performing operas by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. He would later draw on that bel canto style for his own music,” says Hunt.

Back in London, Balfe wrote his first opera, which established him as the foremost opera composer of the time who counted Queen Victoria among his fans. 

“The Siege of Rochelle ran for 70 nights at Theatre Royal Drury Lane. There was a succession of 28 other operas. His best-known work, The Bohemian Girl was an international success; nonetheless, Balfe’s music is now largely forgotten.”

The score for The Sleeping Queen was sent to Hunt by the late Basil Walsh, a historian who published a biography of Balfe. 

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The cast of ‘The Sleeping Queen’ hard at work rehearsing for their performance next Saturday.

A post shared by BlackwaterValleyOperaFestival (@blackwatervalleyoperafestival) on

A concert performance of the work for the Balfe bicentenary celebrations followed in 2008.

The fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, is a model for the plot. Talking to Hunt, you get the sense that she is as excited by discovering new historical contexts as she is about finding dusty musical goodies to shine up and bring to the platform.

“Reading the libretto, I realised that there were coincidences with the early reign of Victoria — so many that below the surface there is a subplot in homage to Queen Victoria.”

It is unusual in being Balfe’s only operetta scored for just four characters and piano accompaniment in its original version. 

Hunt explains that the reason for the chamber opera forces was due to the fact that the work was not designed for the theatre but a very unusual London venue.

“Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla hosted various entertainments at their Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street. 

"At a time when middle classes regarded theatres in general as sinful and as dangerous dens of iniquity, the Reeds avoided the name ‘theatre’, calling their productions ‘entertainments’ or ‘illustrative gatherings’.”

Two familiar names were associated with German Reed’s venue. The enormously successful partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan was forged there.

“The listener will notice the similarities between Balfe’s style and that of Arthur Sullivan, yet The Sleeping Queen predated the successful G&S partnership. 

"Nonetheless, Balfe scarcely receives the credit he is due as an innovator and trailblazer of 19th century opera.”

Hunt and the Lismore event will help to redress this oversight.

The Sleeping Queen - June 1, St Carthage’s Cathedral Lismore

The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival May 29 – June 3. www.blackwatervalleyoperafestival.com

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