The words Manley sang, describing visions close to unbearable and sometimes crossing the line, were projected on a downstage platform. Five smaller video screens scattered across the stage offered further details of landscape and translations of Ó Lionáird’s Gaelic plaints, interrupted regularly by video interview segments with contemporary historians and economists – Noam Chomsky, Paul Krugman, Megan Vaughan, Branko Milanovic, and Maureen Murphy – who link the historic famine to market-driven English economic strategies, and draw parallels to more modern instances of similar practices. (Their words, too, were projected on the downstage screen, a distinct boon.)
The mix of competing sensations, which could verge on sensory overload – occasionally to no evident gain, as when Alarm Will Sound players rose and ventured out onto the set – was jarring and no doubt meant to be, given the subject matter. Yet Dennehy’s instrumental writing provided a sure adhesive, combining aspects derived from the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Bang on a Can, Gérard Grisey, and more in a manner that supported disparate voices. In emotionally vulnerable moments solo instruments subtly shadowed vocal lines, caressing them tenderly. Yet throughout The Hunger, microtonal frictions sown into otherwise consonant foundations were a master stroke: sour-milk disharmonies disrupting rustic calm, conjuring unease and decay.
With so much going for The Hunger – Dennehy’s inventive score; intense commitment from Manley and Ó Lionáird; vitality and confidence from Alarm Will Sound; Jim Findlay’s handsome set; Christopher Kuhl’s evocative lighting; a deft audio mix by Daniel Neumann – it seems strange to still have misgivings about the work’s efficacy. That the music was powerful and affecting was not in question – yet the video segments could feel disruptive and overbearing in their increasing proliferation and stridency, particularly since the clips seemed less integrated into the music than laid over it, like a DVD commentary track.
As much a concern, given the presentation of so fervent a political position, were nagging questions of a more personal nature. Was an audience member meant to come away from The Hunger inspired to take action? Would the work likely have changed the mind of anyone whose general views were more sympathetic to free-market economics, who surely number among operatic audience members?
Those questions seem germane, and don’t necessarily have answers that will apply for everyone. Then again, that such issues continue to linger and resonate well after a performance has transpired might construe in itself some measure of successful artistic activism.