Irish National Opera, United Fall, and Irish Baroque Orchestra at Town Hall Theatre, Galway, on 25 July 2018

Galway International Arts Festival manages to be that wonderful thing, a truly cross-disciplinary festival with something for everyone, much of it innovative or at least a bit different. Opera has been part of the mix for a while now, in various guises, but in recent years the festival has begun hosting some significant new productions, with last year’s prize-winning ‘The Second Violinist’ (Wide Open Opera) and, now, this from Irish National Opera: Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’. Taking a seat in tonight’s full house, hearing conversations around being had in Dutch and German as well as the local tongues, it feels like being at a summer festival anywhere in Europe.

This work gives a crisp account of the tragic tale, moving from Orfeo’s mourning to the attempted rescue, and then the final loss, of his beloved: that fatal glance back. It’s a challenge to stage. So atomised, with minimal narrative beyond the passage of grief, it becomes (as Gluck labelled it) a ‘tragic action’, a work of abstract theatrical expression that should be both sung and danced. Dancing used to go hand-in-hand with opera, but is seen less frequently—dance-music in operas is now more often just a backdrop for miming—so having a company of dancers, United Fall, performing at the heart of this production adds a great deal.

Despite the period instruments in the pit no attempt is made at reconstructing early styles of movement on stage (baroque dance seems fated to remain at the fringes of historically-informed performance), but nevertheless the choreographic language is consistent and reflective, and the singers are also very much included in the physical story-telling, almost as much as the dancers themselves. The choreography by director Emma Martin vividly captures the many underlying tensions within story and score—the uneven pull between tragedy and carnival, and much else besides—with intuitive grace.

At the centre of all this activity stands the Orfeo of Sharon Carty. Her performance is compelling, both vocally and dramatically. There is a smooth depth to her sound, as if this role has brought out an aspect of her voice that we’ve not had the chance to hear before. Always intelligent, her vocal ornaments are excellent, but more vitally she brings an openness to her sense of Orfeo as a character, a figure in the process of finding himself (or herself?) through grief. The most expressive moments, such as the arias Che puro ciel [‘How bright the sky’], or the famous Che farò senza Euridice? [‘What shall I do without Eurydice’], are not set apart from the rest of the action but emerge as a natural extension of both moment and music. She is well-matched by Sarah Power as Euridice, singing beautifully, while soprano Emma Nash brings a fresh clarity to the cameo character of Amore.

Their success is enhanced by the strong teamwork of the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Peter Whelan, directing the music from the harpsichord with sure drive and enthusiasm. With a small ensemble playing a reduced score we miss out on the richer string and brass textures of Gluck’s writing, but as the evening progresses the ensemble makes up for this, creating its own distinctive soundworld. There’s a wonderful point in the first act when Carty’s voice is matched with the flute of Miriam Kaczor (playing delightfully here), as if in dialogue; later the flautist rightly enjoys the spotlight in the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, a rapturous moment.

Played as a chamber piece, the intimate staging is framed for much of the action by a simple backdrop of hanging drapes, recalling the bourgeois interior scenes of a Magritte painting. It is as if we are being invited to look on at a dreamscape, an effect enhanced by Stephen Dodd’s expressionist lighting design. This is a production that offers much, as a moving and mysterious re-telling of the story, and as a thoughtful meditation on the narrative and its many threads. Thankfully it even retains the baroque ‘happy ending’, here played as a glorious final moment of subversive glee, a surprise epilogue. As befits a product of the age of enlightenment this staging presents philosophy in motion, by turns tricky, playful and intense, and you can’t say much better than that.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice
Sung in Italian (libretto by Ranieri de Calzabigi), with English surtitles
Director: Emma Martin; Set Designer: Sabine Dargent; Costume Designer: Catherine Fay; Lighting Designer: Stephen Dodd; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast: Sharon Carty (Orfeo); Sarah Power (Euridice); Emma Nash (Amore/Chorus Soprano); Dominica Williams, Fearghal Curtis, Matthew Mannion (Chorus)
Dancers (United Fall): Robyn Byrne, Stephanie Duphresne, Javier Ferrer, Sophia Preidel
Irish Baroque Orchestra

Performances at Town Hall, Galway to 29 July; then on nationwide tour February-March 2019

Photography by Pat Redmond