note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
Transferring epic poetry to the stage is a delicate operation. When the limitless expanse of the imagination is confined within theatrical convention, the power of the poet can be diffused.
Composer Kate Sullivan and director Marshall Hughes of Opera UnMet are experimenting with Seamus Heaney's translation of the medieval Irish epic "Buile Suibhne" --- trans: Sweeney Astray". Sullivan has composed an evocative musical score and Hughes' company of nine singers re-enact the adventures of mad king Sweeney while a narrator reads the text.
A curse has transformed the king into a bird who can find no rest. When his sins are purged at last in death, only then can he find peace. The Opera UnMet production lands somewhere between a medieval mystery pageant and a modern opera. Sullivan's score is what lifts "Sweeney" out of pageant territory, making it more than a literal acting-out of the text. Would that instead of a half dozen songs there were two dozen --- a song for every character ... songs like the poignant duet for Sweeney/Bird and his human, earthbound wife. Wish that we could fly away together" is a heartbreaking lament which makes Sweeney "real" and, more importantly, sympathetic. (In the text he rails, curses, and complains.) It's the music which adds dimension to the piece.
The performances are painted in broad strokes like the medieval text they originate from, but broad performances nowadays conjure up comedy. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that "Monty Python & The Holy Grail" kept coming to mind, especially when a cleric tricks Sweeney down out of a tree with increasingly terrible news. So when the trees whispered "Neech" I was stuck on the knights who say "Neecht" in the movie. Sorry, but the material is so large that it's one small step to the banana peels.
Turning "Sweeney" into a musical would eliminate the giggle-factor. The text lends itself beautifully, as Sullivan demonstrates in her songs, to aria and recitative. Unfortunately, a narrator slows things down --- a problem that afflicted Yeats' plays based on the mythological adventures of the warrior Cuchulain. Narration in Gaelic, on the other hand, is magical and musical to an English speaking audience. (Ronan O'Flaherty begins in Gaelic then switches to English.) My suggestion would be to put all of Heaney's mystical language into the singers' mouths, and if there's a narrator give him a Gaelic text.
"Sweeney's" string suit is its singing, with fine vocal work from Mick Israel as Sweeney's arch enemy, whose curse "exiles (the king) from himself." Sullivan has assembled a first rate orchestra in Ellen Polansky, Crick Fiefendorf, Elaine Fortuin, Owen Beane, and Sullivan herself on guitar. A nimble chorus portrays all the other roles. Maledictions and madness are the stuff of opera. There seems to be an opera in "Sweeney" trying to get out.