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by Jon Jackson
Lady in period attire in front of lush green and purple background

Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria’s production of Victor Herbert’s comic opera was the first time I’d ever heard of Eileen. I’d seen and heard many excerpts from his 46 stage productions as well as his popular songs, but I’d not seen an entire Herbert opera. From the late 1890s, Victor Herbert was a major figure on Broadway beginning with Prince Ananias in 1894 with hits along the way like Babes in Toyland (1903), The Red Mill (1906), Naughty Marietta (1910), right through to The Dream Girl in 1924. Eileen first opened on Broadway in 1917 with score by Victor Herbert and lyrics by Henry Blossom, a frequent collaborator. The story is loosely based on a novel, Rory O’Moore, written by Herbert’s grandfather. Rory O’Moore himself was a real life Irish rebel who helped organise the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The story line of Eileen, however, follows the later 1798 United Irishmen’s Rebellion with a few extra details about a failed French-Irish rebellion thrown in. Herbert was driven to write Eileen as a political reaction to the 1916 execution by the British of the leaders of the Irish Easter Rising in Dublin. It stirred up a lot of emotion in Irish Americans, including Herbert. He drew his inspiration from the earlier rebellions and set the piece in 18th century Ireland. This production has a new libretto by Alyce Mott, which is based on Blossom’s original with a revised score by Dino Anagost. One wonders how much was changed to bring the story and music up to date for a 21st century audience. If you’re familiar with the original, maybe you should check this one out.

In 1789, the United Irishmen seek to reclaim their lands from the British. Lady Maude, played with warmth and sincerity by Jennifer Anderson, is the attractive widow of Lord Estabrooke. She is now the mistress of Castle Sligo, once the property of the O’Day family. This has created hostility among the locals. Her niece Eileen, played by Alix Roberts, has returned to Ireland after her schooling at a convent in France accompanied by Sir Reginald (Reggie) Stribling. Part of the show’s comic relief, Sir Reggie is also in love with Lady Maude, or is it her lands?

Meanwhile, Eileen has already fallen in love with Barry O’Day, an Irish rebel and also the rightful owner of Castle Sligo. Now an outsider, Barry has enlisted the help of local rebels to take on the British and reclaim his lands. They include a band of smugglers and revolutionaries lead by Sean Regan (or Black Sean) played with great energy by Tim Blencowe. The stage jumps to life when he leads the ensemble in a rollicking rendition of “Free Trade and a Misty Moon”. Sean is the villain of the piece and you really want to boo and hiss when he appears. He acts as Barry’s friend, but betrays him to the English.

Colonel Lester, the local British authority, is very sweet on Lady Maude, and she tolerates his attentions to conceal her secret support of the rebels. When the Colonel comes to arrest Barry for treason, Maude disguises Barry as a servant and aids his escape. Barry has organised to co-ordinate his rebels’ attack to coincide with the arrival of a French military contingent to help them overthrow the British garrison. On that same night, a party has been organised to celebrate Lady Maude’s birthday. Barry is unaware that Sean has betrayed him, and when Lady Maude receives a message that the French aren’t coming, Barry has to be warned. It’s all very heroic and patriotic as well. The score is full of Irish styled music and airs which really set the mood. The song “Eileen” was hugely successful even before the production opened and its’ strong appeal to those of Irish heritage remains today.

In the role of Barry O’Day the company has a found a fine actor in Peter Garratt. He commits to the role and plays it with both humility and humour. His Irish accent is very solid and convincing, unlike his singing. Although he manages all the notes in Herbert’s score, the upper register is weaker and not the voice of the hero he plays. It should be pointed out that this production is the first where the company has used personal microphones for the singers. It had mixed results to say the least. I sometimes wondered whether I’d have heard some of the singers if they weren’t amplified.

As a contrast, the older performers, such as Alfred Anderson as Colonel Lester and Ron Pidcock as Sir Reggie, had no trouble projecting their voices; microphones or not. But there were some lovely moments in the show with the ensemble and orchestra under conductor Kent Ross doing justice to Victor Herbert’s fine score.

Adding an extra dimension to the production were the Cosgriff Irish Dancers led by Conor Haigh. Integrated into the action as a group of local children, they were a joy to watch. Other highlights were the songs and dance performed by Amber Southall as Maddie. Her voice is sweet and authentic and very much in character. Director Suzanne Barton has done a fine job with this cast, blending the various performance styles required to make this historic piece come alive. She has used a more contemporary reading of the character’s emotions, rather than the melodramatic style popular in 1917, whilst still keeping the comic references to the British.

If you want to see and hear a rarely performed gem of Edwardian light opera, or have a yen to revel in some Irish nostalgia, then Eileen is the opera for you.

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