We increasingly demand of our art that it be relevant, without being quite sure what that means. Enter “The Hunger,” a much-celebrated operatic documentary about the Great Irish Famine of the mid-19th century, presented as a multimedia cantata (video screens, two singers, instrumental ensemble) by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, and which came to the Terrace Theater for its East Coast premiere as part of the Kennedy Center’s ongoing “Ireland 100” festival on Wednesday night.
“The Hunger” is ambitious, deeply researched, often beautiful and somewhat uncompromising. Visually, it involves a stage crowded with instruments — the crack ensemble Alarm Will Sound — with the soprano Katherine Manley and the sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird standing in the midst of them, she singing the words of the American journalist Asenath Nicholson, one of the only people to travel among the Irish peasants and try to see things from their point of view, and he offering the few bits of Gaelic song that have been preserved from a period one song collector, cited in the program notes, referred to as “a great unwonted silence.”
Framing all this are five video screens with five talking heads, in the best film documentary style — Paul Krugman, Noam Chomsky, Maureen Murphy and others — who weigh in with snippets of thought about the famine from different perspectives, intercut with the music.
What makes it uncompromising is that it has to be met halfway. The texts, the thoughts, the ideas come as thick and fast as the music, but they have to be apprehended separately in a hall too dark to allow for easy reading of the accompanying program text. The talking heads, on TV-size screens, were often difficult to understand through the music, particularly when, in a cliched move, they all blared on at once — a move repeated several times, at least twice too often, before the end of the work.
“The Hunger” is considerably more successful than Dennehy’s experimental “The Last Hotel,” which came to New York in January. It bears hearing and rehearing; one viewing is not enough time to grasp it, let alone digest it. It is powerful, and it makes a statement, somewhat heavily but with effect. It is not, necessarily, dramatic, in that it somewhat hides its light, requiring its audience to meet it halfway to discover its richness.