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Donnacha DENNEHY (b. 1970) The Last Hotel – an opera to a libretto by Enda Walsh (2015)
Husband - Robin Adams (baritone)
Woman - Claudia Boyle (soprano)
Wife - Katherine Manley (soprano)
Porter – Mikel Murphy (actor)
Sophie Motley, Donnacha Dennehy, tape
Crash Ensemble/Alan Pierson
rec. live, 2017, Les Théâtres de la Ville, Luxembourg; Teldex Studio, Berlin
Libretto included CANTALOUPE CA21143 [74:13]
After a week in which one’s football team has managed to snatch a seemingly impossible defeat from the jaws of certain victory, and during which one’s national cricket XI has been summarily dismissed for a pitiful 67 all out by its oldest foe, Donnacha Dennehy’s darkly engrossing one-act opera The Last Hotel hardly seems to be the most likely vehicle to offer comfort to listeners like myself seeking reassurance or consolation. It does however provide a timely reminder that some folk have it a lot worse (as if there isn’t sufficient evidence anywhere else in the world one cares to look). It’s a propulsive and exciting piece which features both terrific vocal writing (for the female voices especially) and colourful instrumental accompaniment.
My most enjoyable encounter with Dennehy’s work to date involved a 2011 Nonesuch disc featuring the haunting vocal work Grá agus Bás and the Yeats cycle That the Night Come; both are cogent, impressive offerings on a release which also features the Crash Ensemble under Alan Pierson. These are both substantial works and each has been strikingly conceived for two very different voices (the Gaelic traditional sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird and Dawn Upshaw respectively – available on Nonesuch 7559797727). Other portrait discs have followed on RTÉ LYRIC FM (review) and on NMC. Nonesuch are also poised to issue another dramatic work by Dennehy, The Hunger (75597925135), a ‘docu-cantata’ about the Great Famine.
One of the most appealing features of Dennehy’s music lies in an ability to naturally absorb the flavours and modes of traditional Irish music into his structures without contrivance or self-consciousness; they are present to some degree in The Last Hotel in the sounds of accordion, piccolo and recorder (and perhaps my own perceptual set made me think of Thin Lizzy during the many moments where John Godfrey’s guitar lets rip). But be in no doubt; this collaboration with esteemed playwright Enda Walsh (the first of an operatic trilogy, apparently) inhabits rather challenging, uncompromising emotional terrain. Ultimately the plot concerns the prospect of an assisted suicide, but if this is the central event in the drama peripheral details often seem more compelling as far as the listener is concerned. Without wishing to give too much away, the story involves an English couple travelling from Surrey to an appropriately drab hotel in an Irish coastal town having apparently agreed to help an unhappy, unfulfilled Irish woman kill herself. Inevitably The Last Hotel is never quite as straightforward as that; the couple themselves are seemingly bogged down by their own relationship issues, while there are any number of demons and obsessions which complicate the lives and motivations of all three major protagonists. There is also a dodgy, rather creepy porter who we don’t see – his dumb role is central to the action and renders the libretto, which is included in full, an absolute necessity during the first couple of listens at least. There is black humour aplenty, not least in the obsessive-compulsive musings of the husband, whose brash, rather cold nature is clinically portrayed by the excellent baritone Robin Adams. If the devil is in the detail, it certainly provides the wherewithal for this character to shy away from considering the full emotional consequences of his behaviour, or the implied disaster of his own marriage, and his constant tendency to the intellectualise his predicament is compellingly projected by Adams throughout.
There is a real, if somewhat troubled rapture in Dennehy’s writing for the two female characters whose fates seem destined to collide. Both sopranos, Claudia Boyle (the Woman) and Katherine Manley (the Wife) are superb; the haunted musings of the former especially are both touching and disturbing; but both voices are ripely sonorous (especially in duet) while both apply imaginative dramatic flourishes to their roles. The vocal music is supported throughout by Dennehy’s agitated ensemble writing which is by turn driving and tentative, truculent and thoughtful. The Last Hotel progresses at a swift pace, meaning the listener has little time to process the nuanced guile of Walsh’s libretto. While the sporadic humour expressed verbally or musically renders the whole more digestible, it rarely conveys the laugh-out-loud hilarity one frequently encounters in the music of Dennehy’s compatriot Gerard Barry. Nor does The Last Hotel need it.
In the final analysis this opera struck me as restless, compelling and eminently well-crafted; suffice to say though the music per se can only hint at the rather specific visuals (in terms of both dramatic action and stage design) demanded by Walsh’s libretto. With that in mind The Last Hotel cries out to be filmed; perhaps in time the adventurous Cantaloupe label will consider issuing a filmed set of the completed Dennehy/Walsh trilogy. In the meantime, this disc of Dennehy’s thrillingly insistent, nagging grooves as conveyed by the incisive Crash Ensemble under the gimlet precision of Alan Pierson’s baton must suffice.