Irish Baroque Orchestra and Blackwater Valley Opera Festival at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford on 1 June 2022

Outdoor opera festivals come in all shapes and sizes. Some are artistically radical and ambitious, others simply enjoy bringing audiences together in strange, out-of-the-way places, like old castles or ruined amphitheatres. If an opera can be like a dream, why not add to the illusion?

Blackwater Valley Opera Festival has grown but at its heart remains a short annual opera season in Lismore Castle, tucked away in the lush countryside of west Waterford. After the tedium and craziness of long-distance travelling (minimal public transport options, sadly, and never enough time), suddenly arriving in this oasis of botanical charm – the castle gardens really are amazing – is quite surreal. As well, everyone is so nice and helpful, and the catering is a delight. Why Fáilte Ireland doesn’t go nuts over this event is a mystery.

The main show this year is the much-loved ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ (‘Orpheus and Eurydice’) by Christoph Gluck – not his only work of music theatre by a long way, though that’s certainly how it seems sometimes. The dreamlike strangeness of our arrival continues as the show opens, while dancers gather and the overture plays. Director and choreographer David Bolger prefers a narrow palette of colours, black for mourning and the shades of hell, white for the blessed spirits, while a smattering of hats and umbrellas takes us close to the world of Magritte. The Irish Baroque Orchestra directed by Peter Whelan return to this music with evident relish, with the (uncredited) smoky tang of a chalumeau solo – as echo to Orfeo’s first-act cries for Euridice – a novel addition.

Kelli-Ann Masterson (Amor)

The light, mostly young voices of the chorus sing and move well, apart from moments of drifting ensemble with the orchestra (a situation not helped by the layout on stage). Appropriately for this ‘tragic action’, dancers and chorus are difficult to distinguish, and the tight patterns of Bolger’s choreography bring out the broken mood of the story to strong effect.

The singer at the centre of this story is the Orfeo of Meili Li, a fine countertenor with impressive technique who nevertheless seems strangely inert in the drama. Also, for all his beauty of tone, at times his music seems to sit too low for him. Dressed in a smart (black-and-white) suit, during the first act you could be forgiven for thinking he was a young executive dreaming about a bad deal at the office. The effect of his otherworldly presence is if anything enhanced by his fellow protagonists – Kelli-Ann Masterson (Amor) and Aoife Gibney (Euridice) – who seem, by contrast, vividly present, a curious irony.

Aoife Gibney (Euridice)

Masterson’s excellent singing tonight confirms that she is clearly an artist to watch out for, her playful take on Amor nicely poised. From a vocal and dramatic point of view, however, the star of the show has to be Aoife Gibney. Now based in Germany, it is a few years since we have had a chance to hear her, and hopefully we won’t have to wait as long again. Gibney’s Euridice is febrile and impassioned, and her short appearance in the third act suddenly sets this drama alight. Her voice is richly expressive, scaled well for this production but clearly capable of more, and her presence also brings out a stronger performance from Li, their duet a superb moment.

After she vanishes in a pall of smoke, the ‘happy-ending’ of this version of the story brings everyone back on stage – and raises some interesting questions. Enraptured, the audience rise to their feet, charmed, entertained, and energised by the experience, before heading out into the twilit greenery.

Meili Li (Orfeo)

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice (‘Orpheus and Eurydice’)
Sung in Italian (libretto by Ranieri de Calzabigi), with English surtitles
Director: David Bolger; Set & Costume Designer: Maree Kearns; Lighting Designer: Eamon Fox; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast: Meili Li (Orfeo); Aoife Gibney (Euridice); Kelli-Ann Masterson (Amor)
BVOF Chorus; CoisCéim Dance Theatre; Irish Baroque Orchestra

Photography by Sean O’Riordan