Retrospect Opera
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera
David Parry conductor and the spoken role of Sergeant Cox 
Opera Bohemia Voices chorus


Shamus O’Brien, first performed in 1896, was Stanford’s most successful opera. Well-known names of the period were involved in its performances. Henry Wood and Granville Bantock were conductors, Gustav Holst aged 22 played trombone, and Lucinda Shaw, sister of George Bernard Shaw, sang the role of Kitty.

The opera enjoyed successful runs throughout Britain including Ireland, as well as in New York and Australia. In the early 20th Century it simply vanished from the repertoire. Growing violence in Irish politics, and the rise of atonality in music, could both have been involved.

Retrospect Opera are to be congratulated for bringing back a work with SUCH a captivating story. The libretto is by George H. Jessop, and it is based on a poem by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. This new edition by Valerie Langfield is delivered both dramatically and musically in a lively and light-hearted way.

From the sparkling overture through solo arias, duets, ensembles and choruses, yes, and at one point, a dance using the Uilleann pipes played by Jarlath Henderson, Stanford’s music carries you heartily forward. Perhaps there are fewer tunes than in Sullivan’s Operas – where you can whistle along after the show – but you will surely find real delight in Stanford’s more finely structured and tellingly orchestrated melodies.

The eponymous hero Shamus O’Brien (Brendan Collins, a strong baritone) having taken part in the 1798 uprising, is hunted by the English Army, led by Captain Trevor (Joseph Doody, a dauntless tenor) while to the citizens of his village, Shamus is a hero. These include his wife Nora, sung by mezzo Gemma Ni Bhriain, with spoken dialogue by Anna Brady, her sister, the lovely Kitty (silver clear soprano Ami Hewitt) and local priest Father O’Flynn (rich bass-baritone Rory Dunne). 

One character, Mike Murphy (another fine tenor Andrew Gavin), detests Shamus having lost the affections of Nora to his rival. He decides to inform on Shamus to the English. Actually, Captain Trevor dislikes Mike and is strongly attracted to Kitty. To begin with Shamus disguises himself as the village idiot and takes the English on an exhausting rampage through the bogs. Eventually his identity is revealed by Mike. Shamus is captured and is to be hanged. The song of the Banshee, sung offstage in florid soprano by Catriona Clark, predicts approaching death. Does Shamus die, or is it perhaps someone different? 

Why not get this two-CD set full of Stanford’s delightful music and find out?

Review by Alan Cooper