Originally rejected by the Abbey theatre in the 1920s Sean O'Casey's play, 'The Silver Tassie' has always been fraught with controversy in this country, and Mark-Anthony Turnage's adaptation currently in production by Opera Ireland is set to be no different. Turnage's second opera set to a libretto by Amanda Holden, explores the misery of war and the brutalities of peace as we follow our quasi-hero Harry Heegan from his victories on the football field through his injuries of war and on to his eventual despair.
Falling into four acts - each with its own discreet musical style - the first is restless and fragmented as we are introduced to the characters that populate O'Casey's tenement landscape. Rising to a climax on Harry's entrance, he toasts his sporting success and his love for Jessie with a drink from the Silver Tassie and one of the most memorable arias from the work. But, massed ranks of silent soldiers serve as a reminder that the war is waiting and our hero must return to the front.
Act 2 plunges into the trenches where the sustained choral writing is underpinned by a powerful bass line (A Prophet of Doom in the form of the Croucher, superbly performed by Gerard O' Connor). The solemn lament of the troops as they cry, "Shall we die in November?" provides one of Tassie's musical highlights and is perhaps the most moving episode in the opera. We learn of Harry's paralysis in Act 3 when his life begins to fall asunder. Jessie has deserted him for the affections of his able-bodied best friend and her indifference to Harry is all too apparent. The short and intense exchanges between patient and visitors take the form of a slow-moving scherzo leading to the dance sequence of the final act, when Harry's bitterness comes into sharp focus. In what is an overly long expression of self-pity the movement does provide a poignant duet between Harry and his blinded neighbour, also a victim of the war, as well as some moments of choreographic genius.
Unfortunately, as must inevitably be the case, much of the comedy and irony of O'Casey's play is lost in its metamorphosis to opera. Indeed the very texture of the language of Opera seems to grate against the inherent "Dublin" of the original text resulting in something of a morganatic union.
Twentieth century objection to the play was that it lacked "unity of action". This theatrical shortcoming is transcended to a point in the opera house, where choreography and design allow the gritty realism of a Dublin tenement to sit more easily beside the expressionism used to depict the horror of the trenches. However Harry's absence for much of Act 1 and all of Act 2 means that the audience is not given a chance to develop an empathy with the character. As a result, the horrors of his paralysis and his pain at the loss of his love and all that he holds dear ring a little hollow.
Opera Ireland perform 'The Silver Tassie' at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on 6 and 8 April at 7.30 pm