Orfeo ed Euridice: Gluck under canvas

This year’s Blackwater Valley Opera Festival offering has plenty of energy but falls short on coherence

Orfeo ed Euridice

Lismore Castle, Co Waterford
★★★

It’s business as usual again at Blackwater Valley Opera Festival. Well, not quite. I haven’t been there since 2019, and there have been changes and improvements—a new, much less complicated entry route to Lismore Castle, improved seating in the marquee-covered performance space in the stables, and, in the director and choreographer David Bolger’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, more people onstage than I’ve ever seen in a festival performance before.

Bolger uses the mostly black-clad chorus and dancers as a sea of emotion, movements flowing between bodies as if driven by an inexorable current, pain and grief the dominating concern. The singing of the youthful chorus is passionately engaged but uneven, sometimes simply ragged in delivery, and with single voices allowed to protrude from the mass as if individual singers have set off on solo runs.

Maree Kearns’s black set—boarded floor, boarded back wall with multiple ladders to create a second level—is the closest I’ve seen the festival come to opera-stage focus in the wide but shallow performance space. The funereal tone is slightly leavened by the addition of peasant brown, green and grey to some of the costumes; the whiteness brought by Euridice and the Blessed Spirits then makes them stand out as if they were otherworldly visions.

The Chinese countertenor Meili Li makes his Irish and role debut as Orfeo with arresting vocal tone and striking presence, the sound on high and under pressure completely devoid of the sense of artifice of so many countertenor voices. The urgency and immediacy are counterparted by a skill in intimate, honed-down moments, delivered almost like asides.

The difficulty is in the transition between the two, and in sustaining the vibrancy of the high notes lower in the range, even within single phrases. So, for all the impressiveness of the display, there is little sense of carefully graded nuance, as his delivery seems to slot into preordained grooves.

The arrival of Aoife Gibney’s Euridice—highly articulate, varied in inflection and more detailed in emotional communication—brings a level of focused expressiveness that Meili Li lacks. The cast is completed by Kelli-Ann Masterson’s flighty Amor, got out like someone who has strayed out of a disco running a dress competition.

Peter Whelan conducts the Irish Barqoue Orchestra with typical brio but, with the players located under a separate roof, doesn’t always manage to connect orchestra and voices as you would expect.

Runs as part of Blackwater Valley Opera Festival until Monday, June 6th

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor