The lightness of Orfeo, and a little enlightenment from Finghin Collins

Collins gave a terrific talk about the nuts and bolts of his career during Dublin International Piano Festival

Finghin Collins: by some distance the most successful Irish pianist of his generation

Finghin Collins: by some distance the most successful Irish pianist of his generation

Wed, Jul 30, 2014, 01:00

It was an imaginative idea for Mark Duley’s Resurgam choir to team up with Erin Headley’s international early- music ensemble Atalante for the production of a mid-17th-century opera at St Nicholas’s Church during Galway Arts Festival.

The chosen opera, Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo, dates from 1647 and was commissioned by Cardinal Mazarin for performance in Paris. It was an extravagant affair. The cast runs to more than two dozen characters. There’s a prologue in praise of Louis XIV. The plot features a rival for Orfeo (Aristeo, a son of Bacchus), added to accommodate an important singer who needed to be included. And there is all sorts of extra comedy for light relief. A full performance with intervals would run to more than four hours. The Galway performance, scheduled to include 160 minutes of music, ran to nearly 3½.

The musical style requires lightness and agility of voice, and the two leads, mezzo soprano Lucia Cirillo’s Orfeo and soprano Nadine Balbeisi’s Euridice, were both nimble and emotionally penetrating. On the comic side, counter tenor Steve Dugardin’s Vecchia (Venus disguised as an old woman) had a bad night, with gaps in delivery that left him floundering in the absence of a prompter.

The high points of the evening, however, came in the ensembles and choruses, especially at the close of act two in the lamentation over the death of Euridice. It was as if Rossi here found a new and deep expressive vein. And here, too, the members of Resurgam, who were assigned smaller roles, really came into their own.

Atalante provided a rich and varied continuo (10 different instruments), and designer/director Alessio Rosati created sumptuous costumes. His intelligent direction made effective use of minimal stage resources.


Finghin’s findings

The second Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy is under way at venues around the city. The core of the event is a series of masterclasses, all open to the public. The highest-profile events are recitals in the Hugh Lane Gallery and the National Concert Hall’s John Field Room. But the most unusual offering of the first weekend was a talk by Finghin Collins about developing a career as a concert pianist in Ireland.

Collins is by some distance the most successful Irish pianist of his generation, and was one of those players who seemed destined for the top from a very young age. His air of self-possession, and of possessing both the stage and his audience, marked him out from his peers. In his mid-teens, I watched him effectively wrest control of a concerto performance from a conductor. He just used his body in ways that the orchestra seemed to want to follow, and they went his way rather than the conductor’s.

He had his ups and downs on the international competition circuit before striking gold at the highly regarded Clara Haskil Competition in Switzerland in 1999.

He is now artistic director of the New Ross Piano Festival, and Music for Galway, and has, as his website puts, it, “a flourishing international career that takes him all over Europe, the US and the Far East”.

His presentation of the nuts-and-bolts issues of being a pianist was probably very sobering for the young hopefuls in his audience. There was no point, he told them, “pretending that practising is a lot of fun”. Practise everything “slower than you think is necessary”, he said, and he commended the idea of practising hands separately. He reminded me of the advice I was once given that there is always a speed at which you can play completely without error, and that’s the maximum speed you should practise at. It’s advice that is much harder to follow than to give.

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