You’ve got to hand it to Orfeo: he bravely ventures into unknown territory. Surrounded by mourners at the funeral of his wife, Euridice, he finds the courage to speak the dishonourable, and seek revenge against the gods.
Premiered in 1762, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera based on the Greek myth, with libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, has the trimming recitatives and lightening dance of an azione teatrale. In this mesmerising co-production by Irish National Opera and United Fall, in association with Galway International Arts Festival, it finds departure again. Much like Orfeo, director Emma Martin clearly seeks out unfamiliar scenes.
In a funeral parlour, we find a group of dancers forming elegantly grave shapes (Robyn Byrne, Stephanie Dufresne, Javier Ferrer and Sophia Preidel), while a chorus dressed in black veils sing evocative arias (Emma Nash, Dominica Williams, Freghal Curtis and Matthew Mannion). That’s a bold direction to take – an opera that masks its singers. In fact, the production seems assured in letting choreography and design to help channel the emotional wattage.
At the absolute centre of this is Sharon Carty’s excellent Orfeo, a suited musician who is consumed by sorrow. Such is the towering dimension given to his agony, he claims the entire world pities him. With the revelations of Carty’s mezzo-soprano range, we definitely take notice. Similarly accomplished are the superb players of the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Peter Whelan’s direction.
The thrill lies in Orfeo’s journey into the underworld to save Euridice but there’s a catch: he can’t lay eyes on her. Along the way, the rose-pink curtains of Sabine Dargent’s sublime set are miraculously drained of their colour by Stephen Dodd’s meticulous lighting. The sympathising ensemble are replaced by tormenting furies, as Martin – a choreographer – finds striking spins within the rare unloosening of Gluck’s dignified strings, harpsichord and harp.
There’s an exceptional contrast between the regal tune of a flute and the baleful coup de théâtre it ushers in – a collapse of the stage that leaves us in a mysteriously alluring and treacherous cemetery. There, Sarah Power’s Euridice will be found veiled from head to toe, in time for the production’s stirring duets. Carty portrays Orfeo’s flashes between despair and hope while holding every note.
The plot’s move from anger to bargaining suggests a hauntingly beautiful production alert to stages of grief. Though the opera tries to give answers on how to survive without your beloved, Martin, much like Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, believes it’s a more complex process. She leans so intently into the tragedy, the finale seems almost tragicomic without suppressing the opera’s power.
Orfeo ed Euridice is on until 29 July at the Town Hall Theatre. Click here for more details.