Gala festival openings aren’t art, but appetizer. On Tuesday night, the Kennedy Center kicked off its Ireland 100 festival with a smorgasbord of amuse-bouches of coming events highlighting the cultural riches of Erin. The sense of event was heightened by the presence of Vice President Biden and the taoiseach of Ireland, Enda Kenny, which meant the accompanying presence of airport-style security gates that kept the glittering audience waiting in line for minutes after the scheduled 8 o’clock start. We all wish that our government leaders would come to more arts events, but when they do it is certainly a hassle for everybody.
Fiona Shaw, the actress, was a buoyant master of ceremonies who was as natural and unaffected as it may be possible to be in an evening skirt, trying to keep a touch of class in this high-end variety show and then marshaling her own talents for a recitation of Yeats’s famous “Easter, 1916” (“A terrible beauty is born”) that was unquestionably the artistic highlight of the evening.
An evening that is designed to leave you wanting more inevitably has about it a sense of the unfulfilled. The pianist Barry Douglas played a single John Field nocturne beautifully, suspending time for a moment — and then, boom, the piano was wheeled away and it was time for Anthony Kearns, one of the Three Irish Tenors, to sing “Down by the Salley Gardens” (in the Britten arrangement) in a bright, tinny voice. (Douglas will appear with his Camerata Ireland, a chamber orchestra of musicians from both the Republic and from Northern Ireland, and the Harmony North Choir, made up of students from Belfast, on Saturday.)
Tara Erraught, the mezzo-so-prano who appeared briefly in “Cinderella” at the Washington National Opera last year, brought her signature sparkle to an operatic rarity, an aria from Michael William Balfe’s “Falstaff.” (She will give a recital Monday.) And Iarla Ó Lionáird offered traditional Irish song, sounding ancient and glottal and raw and beautiful, while an image of an Irish coastline shimmered on the video screen behind him. (His group, the Gloaming, performs June 4.)
The National Symphony Orchestra was a captive audience for some of the events and a participant in many, rather clumsily if enthusiastically conducted by David Brophy in, among other things, the overture to Victor Herbert’s “Eileen,” two movements of a suite by Seán Ó’Riada celebrating Ireland’s anniversary, and an excerpt of Bill Whelan’s “Riverdance.” The fiddler Liz Knowles offered atmospheric accompaniment to several numbers, and Colin Dunne performed virtuosic clog dancing — some of it so amplified that the strikes and shuffles became like the sounds of otherworldly beasts. His one-man multimedia show, “Out of Time,” will play Friday , while Shaw’s star turn comes May 31 — a better format for her talents than even the most well-intentioned and well-conceived variety program.
Sealing the message of political friendship was a video of the center’s namesake, apostrophized as “the greatest Irish American,” speaking during his visit to Ireland in 1963. David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Kennedy Center, once again showed the striking depth of his knowledge on all things Kennedy in his pre-performance remarks. Kennedy’s visit lasted four days, thus affording him a glance of the country as fleeting as this evening’s. He never had a chance to go back for seconds.
The festival Ireland 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture continues through June 5 throughout the Kennedy Center.