Niamh O’Sullivan and Dearbhla Collins in the Kevin Barry Room, NCH, on 5 April 2023

Since she left Ireland in 2016 to join the Artist Studio at Bavarian State Opera, barely into her 20s, mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivan has proved unstoppable, attracting praise from many, including ourselves. Back in Dublin, this evening she takes a break from preparing for Irish National Opera’s upcoming tour of Massenet’s ‘Werther’ for this recital, part of the Dublin Song Series curated by pianist Dearbhla Collins. It’s an enticing prospect, drawing a reasonable crowd, though not as big as one might expect.

The headline item on the programme, Robert Schumann’s provocative song-cycle ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ (‘A Woman’s Love and Life’) has been dividing audiences for over a century. In eight songs, it follows an imagined (and unnamed) woman’s life from first meeting with her love, to marriage and childbirth, through to the husband’s death and her widowhood. While few doubt the quality of Schumann’s musical setting, the lyrics have been viewed as everything from unhinged male fantasy to an ironic deconstruction of the male gaze, and the debate goes on. Whatever view one has of this female subject, if the poetic figure may seem subservient, in the music she is anything but. The best way to make the music work is for the singer to engage with this material with passion, energy, and imagination, which Niamh O’Sullivan certainly offers, with a fascinating approach of her own. Her voice suits this music superbly, bringing to it a richness and range of expression, at times operatic and larger than life.

This is a performance that really needs to be seen—and it may irritate some and excite others—as she brings this character to vivid life, adding an almost filmic level of detail to her gestures, movement, and facial expression. The calm of a conventional song recital is saved for later, while instead this feels like a moment from a larger production, or a post-modern video-diary ‘Frauenliebe’ for our own time. But if this sounds like an edgy experiment, the music is not left behind. The famous fourth song, Du Ring am meinem Finger (‘You, ring upon my finger’) is like a prayerful incantation with its clear focus. Two songs later, in Süsser Freund, du blickest (‘Sweet friend, you gaze on me’), O’Sullivan projects a sense of intimacy, carefully scaling the sound level to expressive effect. Revelling in its melodrama and theatrical possibilities, this is a ‘Frauenliebe’ full of questions, and one can only wonder how this interpretation will develop in the years to come.

Niamh O’Sullivan (image © Frances Marshall)

The ‘Five Songs, Op. 38’ by film composer Erich Korngold bring a mid-century cabaret feel to the programme. Originally composed for an American audience, it is intriguing to hear the first three songs sung in the alternative German text (and O’Sullivan has an excellent feel for this language), but the set might have worked better all in English. These are sung affectionately and playfully, with the final song—the Shakespearean My mistress’ eyes—brought across with relish, O’Sullivan clearly revelling in this powerhouse Hollywood ballad.

The second half of the recital brings the earliest material in the programme with two Franz Schubert songs, before jumping ahead to Johannes Brahms and then songs in English by Roger Quilter, Wilfred Sanderson, and Herbert Hughes. Covering broad themes of nature and memory, the mix of songs is attractive, and the artists have no trouble building rapport with this friendly audience. The Brahms songs are especially effective, with rich tone and sensitivity to detail especially evident in the beautiful Die Mainacht. Niamh O’Sullivan’s singing is deeply suggestive, and the ideas in the first half are engaging, though it seems that, as a programme, this recital is still a work in progress, with different ideas competing for attention. The encore, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler’s hilarious Alto’s Lament, delivers an unexpected element of mischief, and brings the house down.

Robert Schumann, Frauenliebe und Leben, Op. 42
Erich Korngold, Five Songs, Op. 38
Franz Schubert, Auf dem See; Frühlingsglaube
Johannes Brahms, Mein Leibe ist grün; Die Mainacht; Von ewiger Liebe
Roger Quilter, Now sleeps the crimson petal; Come away death
Wilfrid Sanderson, As I sit here
Herbert Hughes, The Gartan Mother’s lullaby; I will walk with my love
Niamh O’Sullivan (mezzo-soprano); Dearbhla Collins (piano)