Review: ‘Olagón’

Iarla Ó Lionáird, vocalist
Dan Trueman, violin
Eighth Blackbird
March 23, University of Richmond

Seven years ago, Dan Trueman, a Princeton University-based composer and folk fiddler, became fascinated with the Irish tradition of “macaronic,” or multilingual, songs, in which the (monolingual) listener swings between hearing words as sound and understanding them. In collaboration with the Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, Trueman set out to create a macaronic song cycle.

The outcome of the venture is “Olagón: a Cantata in Doublespeak,” based on the old Irish legend of a queen and her consort whose love shatters into bitter rivalry, leading to carnage. The text, by the celebrated Irish poet Paul Muldoon, updates the tale to a parable on the greed and excess, followed by ruin, that Ireland experienced as the financial bubble burst a decade ago.

Olagón translates to “a deep, conflicted cry,” manifested here in a phrase, “Ochon agus ochon o” (“alas alack and woe is me!”), that recurs through the piece.

The new-music sextet Eighth Blackbird joined Trueman and Ó Lionáird in a four-year gestation of the work as a music-theater piece. After performances in December in Chicago and February at Princeton, “Olagón” came to the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, which, along with the Poetry Foundation, the Irish Arts Center and the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, supported development and performance of the work.

Muldoon’s text – which “just started singing to us of its own will,” Trueman found –alternates, in large part line by line, between the explicit (in English) and the covert (in untranslated Irish), producing a crosscurrent of meaning and mood.

This puts the singer very much at the center of the piece – a very Irish thing to do. The country’s bardic tradition merges the roles of poet and singer, Muldoon observed in a pre-concert talk.

Ó Lionáird played his role masterfully, vocally and in facial expressions and gestures, in character portrayals and in contemplating those characters and their deeds. There may be other singers who could meet the multiple demands of this work, but it’s likely that “Olagón” will belong to this co-creative voice for the forseeable future.

Trueman’s orchestration, for acoustic and amplified instruments, electronics and live and recorded ensemble and choral voices, is richly evocative and remarkably transparent, considering its many sonic elements and effects. Occasionally in this performance, the mass of sound overbalanced Ó Lionáird’s voice, a probably inevitable hazard in live, amplified performance.

The instrumentalists, at times also taking on vocal roles, were audibly well-practiced – the cast has already recorded the piece; this was its seventh live performance – and vividly realized the score’s range of moods and atmospherics.

The staging of the piece was similar to past Eighth Blackbird theater productions: a multileveled, mostly back-lit space crowded with instruments, with a more brightly lighted center for the action – in this case, a quasi-sitting room where Ó Lionáird reads, ponders and tells the tale, with other performers pacing slowly in and out of the light. This post-modern mythic look fits both the narrative and the music’s cross-breeding of ancient and modern styles.