Adventurous Spirit

Sharon Carty in ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ at Galway International Arts Festival (photo: Pat Redmond)

Adventurous Spirit

Irish National Opera continues to experiment and excite with a production of Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridice' in Galway and a spectacular performance by Sharon Carty, writes Toner Quinn.

Last year, the Galway International Arts Festival presented the world premiere of Donnacha Dennehy’s opera The Second Violinist – the tale of a musician who struggles to find meaning in life and art. This year, GIAF hosted Irish National Opera’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – the tale of another emotionally tortured musician. 

Orfeo ed Euridice is one of three ‘reforming’ operas Gluck wrote in the 1760s and ‘70s – they were shorter, simpler, with less room for endless displays of virtuosity by singers and more focus on the drama.

The drama in this case is the Greek myth of Orpheus in the underworld (‘Orfeo’ in this Italian version): following the death of his wife Euridice, lyre-player Orfeo is told by cupid (Amore) that he can travel to the underworld to retrieve her, but he can only succeed if he doesn’t look at her. It sounds easier than it actually is.

Mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty has the lead role. A few years ago, at a packed performance of the Messiah in St Nicholas’ Church in Galway, the audience were pushed right up to the singers. I happened to be directly on front of Carty throughout and I can still remember the passion in her performance and her ability to act the role, beyond the words and music. As the sparky Amy in The Second Violinist last year, that talent was essential to the drama too, but listen to her sing Gluck’s ‘Addio, o miei sospiri’ from the launch of Irish National Opera in January to get a full sense of the vocal power and virtuosity of this exciting artist. 

Grief and dance
When the curtain opens in the Town Hall Theatre, you are immediately drawn to Orfeo. Carty is slumped in her chair, wearing a suit and tie, her face full of torment. Every now and then she tries to move forward but the grief in her body has her fall back. ‘Euridice… Euridice’, she cries over the chorus.

INO asked Irish choreographer Emma Martin to direct this Gluck work, and one of her key innovations was to bring in four dancers – including Stephanie Dufresne who recently featured in composer Peter Power’s In Clouds at Cork Midsummer Festival. Ballet was a significant part of the French premiere of the opera in 1774, and the work also contains the famous instrumental ’Dance of the Blessed Spirits’, so there did seem to be logic to the idea. Martin also made some changes to Gluck’s plot.

Almost throughout, the dancers surround and engage with the three main singers and chorus, reacting to their words and the drama, playing a foreground and background role at various times. Their responses to the music could be very detailed, jerking precisely with a particular phrase, or more dramatic, pushing and pulling Orfeo as she stresses over her dilemma. It certainly gave the opera an added dimension, yet early on I wanted to experience more of Carty singing on her own, or in duet with Amore (Emma Nash), without having to process the sometimes rather disconnected movements around her.

Photo: Pat Redmond

Carty creatively maintains her tortured pose throughout, every note she sings, with clarity and pathos, adding to our pity for the character. When Amore – subtly and skilfully portrayed by Nash, whose voice is softer but with a sweet tone – tells Orfeo the apparently good news about her task, the protagonist is thrilled, but conflicted, knowing the risks. The production swiftly moves to the underworld, perhaps a little too abruptly, without the aria ‘Addio, o miei sospiri’ from the 1774 version, which marks Orfeo’s departure for the underworld and which Carty sang so spectacularly in January.

The underworld
In the underworld, the incorporation of the dancers becomes more problematic. The choreography naturally needs to keep coming up with new ideas to respond to the music, but the movements become rather indistinguishable. For the famous ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’, the choreographic response was even more muted.

The performance of the piece by the nine-piece ensemble drawn from the Irish Baroque Orchestra, however, with Miriam Kaczor on baroque wooden flute and direction from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan, brought a real serenity to the full house. 

The drama becomes intense with the introduction of Euridice (Sarah Power). Orfeo makes a superhuman effort not to look at her, particularly in the face of Power’s powerful exposition of confusion and hurt, but eventually after their duet Orfeo relents. There is palpable sadness in the auditorium as Euridice dies again.

Opera thrives on its Janet Baker moments – one artist singing a lament to the audience – but at the traditional highlight of Orfeo ed Euridice, when Orfeo sings the aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice’, Carty again has to negotiate the dancers instead of permitting us this classic moment. 

An adventurous spirit
Gluck actually went against the original myth and wrote in a happy ending to the opera, in which the gods take pity and the couple are reunited in real life. Martin chose not to use this, but then added a ‘postscript’ in which all the characters come together to celebrate love and beauty, complete with hip-hop dancing and even a dab. At this stage, the Galway audience is still glowing from the previous scene by Carty and Power, but they must have been a little confused by this sudden jubilation.

At times during Orfeo ed Euridice I felt I must be an opera purist. Still, I would much rather a national opera company that experiments and challenges the audience rather than staying with a safe passage. In Galway, every night was a full house. A national tour of the production has been announced for next February. INO returns to the west this October with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman and audiences will be looking forward to it. In building new audiences for opera with its adventurous spirit, there is a sense that INO is achieving something special right now.

Photo: Pat Redmond

Published on 1 August 2018

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

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