Orpheus: The Greek gods smile kindly on Gluck’s opera

A visually gorgeous and musically compelling production

Ronald Samm in Orpheus at the Everyman, Cork. Photograph: Miki Barlok

Ronald Samm in Orpheus at the Everyman, Cork. Photograph: Miki Barlok

Tue, Sep 24, 2013, 01:00

Everyman, Cork
* * * * *

There’s no such thing as unconditional absolution from the Greek gods: this Everyman and Cork Operatic Society co-production of a tightened, re-orchestrated Orpheus reminds us that no gift is unalloyed. The prophet Cassandra is doomed never to be believed; Persephone will be released from Hades only if she doesn’t eat anything, and she does; and as for Orpheus – he is given the greatest gift of all in bringing his wife Eurydice back from the dead, provided that he doesn’t look at her. Wouldn’t you know it – he looks.

The wonder is that such a marvel as Gluck’s opera survives with no diminution of its mystical bereavement. Here, its power is enhanced by an astonished gratitude that a provincial theatre with limited resources can mount a production so visually gorgeous and musically compelling.

Poverty may impose simplicity but once director, musical director and orchestrator John O’Brien chose this daring route – the performance is mounted on Lisa Zagone’s design of unevenly layered pipes reflecting Michael Hurley’s lighting – all he had to worry about was the quality of his musicians and his singers. Not one of them lets him down.

This is not to say that O’Brien doesn’t take liberties with the formalities of the score, but he does so with authority: this is his rendering of a myth that has a head-spinning number of versions, even for Gluck.

The musicians double and sometimes triple up as those interfering gods (Artemis is bassoon and recorder, Dionysus wields a violin, Hera has two harps and an organ, Athene plays the viola and Apollo is French horn and organ) and move accordingly from pit to stage. This is not a stunt but a gathering of chorus, soloists and even the audience into the ambience of the stricken Orpheus in a deepening of the emotional connections between all three.

Soprano Majella Cullagh announces the plot in a voice infused with compassion as Love, and Tara Brandel’s Eurydice expresses herself in dance (her fatal tantrums suggest that Orpheus is well rid of her). Tenor Ronald Samm invests Orpheus with a lyric pathos so that at the end he makes one of opera’s most famous arias totally his own.

His lament Che farò senza Euridice is threaded through the soprano saxophone with which Carolyn Goodwin voices the eternally lost Eurydice.

As the crimson curtain descends behind, he stands silent and alone. It’s terrific. Ends Saturday