Orfeo is not the only one who’s been to hell and back

At a hotel in Clonmel, a middle-aged couple made a dramatic entrance, like a pair welded together in the hell of matrimony

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 01:00

I was in Clonmel last week at the Junction Festival and I attended a very avant-garde piece of street theatre presented by young people from the locality.

I was given earphones and an iPod and sent on an adventure around the town, guided by instructions from the iPod, and teenagers who took me through alleyways and into a tea shop and to a cemetery, where I was invited to leave a flower on a gravestone. My guides were like beautiful angels directing me on the journey.

The point was to help each participant see the world in a new way, to reflect on the beauty of other people around them and on the shortness of life.

It was an intimate piece of one-to-one theatre, a kind of walking meditation, and it put me in the right mood for Orfeo and Eurydice by Gluck, which I saw in the medieval Church of Ireland on Mary Street later that evening. Whereas I had been led around the town with several beautiful voices in my ears, Eurydice was led out of hell by the single voice of her beautiful Orfeo.

In the story Eurydice dies and Orfeo goes down to the underworld to retrieve her, but the deal he makes with the gods is that he is not allowed to look at her as he leads her back up onto the living earth. Not much of a demand you might think, but what does the gobdaw do? He looks at her. And then she dies a second time.

Elizabeth Atti conducted the Junction Festival Choir, and Roland Schneider and Jennifer Davis sang the principal parts and by the time it was over I was trembling with the exquisite and heartbreaking music as Eurydice failed to find freedom from the underworld.

I was almost in tears as I held my own beloved’s hand in the front pew of the ancient church.


The hell of matrimony

The following morning I was in a hotel lounge waiting for a latte and reading from my Kindle and thinking how sad it was that the opera had just one performance.

A middle-aged couple made a dramatic entrance, like a pair welded together in the hell of matrimony. She entered first, a straw hat dripping with plastic fruit on her blonde head and a Junction Festival programme in her hands. She wobbled on high heels, reminding me of Mrs Brown in a hurry, muttering something about the window being a far better place to sit than anywhere else on Earth.

“I told you yesterday that we’re better off here,” she puffed. “Look: the sun is shining”, as if her husband was an idiot.

He waddled behind her, agitated, like a man who doesn’t have any role in life other than being a husband: a small grey man, with drooping facial muscles, muttering to himself as he followed.

“I was trying to avoid the sunlight,” he pleaded, “in case it makes me sick again.”

But sunlight he got, whether he liked it or not, enormous shafts of it blazing in the window on to his grey head. They sat opposite each other in armchairs with a low coffee table between.

“It must have been the sauce that came with the fish last night,” he pleaded. “It’s not my fault.”

Of course it wasn’t his fault, I thought. How could sickness be someone’s fault? But she was tolerating no excuses as she fiddled with the festival programme. She looked out the window for a moment before delivering a final blow.

“You’re always sick when we go on holidays,” she whispered, and he fell back on the seat as if someone had shot him.

“Fine,” he said. “Fine.”


Nowhere to go

I was expecting him to get up and leave but he probably had nowhere to go. He probably loved so many things about her that he had learned to live with the occasional moment of petty spite.

“That’s fine,” he said again. And time passed. And my latte arrived and I drank half of it before either of them said another word.

They were looking out the window now, isolated from each other, searching for some way back so that they could get on with their holiday.

“Did you phone your sister?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Well that’s not so bad,” she said.

“She was asking for you,” he added.

“That’s nice,” she replied.

And I felt relief that the storm was over. Although I was sorry that Orfeo and Eurydice had been playing for only one night. Otherwise I might have recommended it to them.

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