Orfeo ed Euridice in concert

Looking back through the lens of today it’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary the operatic innovations of Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were for audiences in the late 18th century. There were established rules and norms about what opera should be about and how it should be presented. It was a fairly locked down formula and deviating from it was not only creatively perilous but also risked courting the displeasure of the royalty & nobility who funded the whole operatic endeavour. In a nutshell being too radical could mean failure and poverty.

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Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck and Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. The architects of ‘Reform Opera’.

It was in this atmosphere that Gluck, an established and quite successful composer decided to embark on a project we now call his reform operas. Starting off with Orfeo ed Euridice in 1862 a series of highly successful operas retooled the operatic workshop and set in motion a sea change in operatic themes and presentation. They set about stripping opera of its unnecessary ornamentation, virtuoso adornments, excessive passages and dance scenes all of which they believed hindered the telling of the story. A refocusing on the reality of the drama and the most effective and fluid telling of that story became the priority. To instate a ‘Nobel Simplicity’ as de’ Calzabigi called it.

Orpheus and Eurydice (1862) by Edward Poynter

Orpheus and Eurydice by Edward Poynter.

The story of Orfeo and his wife Euridice is a well-known one from Greek mythology. Orfeo who can thrill man and beast alike with his music finds the body of his beloved wife Euridice and laments her death. Even the gods are overcome by the beauty and sadness of his music so they allow him to go to the underworld to bring her back to earth (what a comment on the power of music). The only condition is that he can not look at or speak to her. After again charming the gate keepers of hades with his music he leads his beloved back to life but on the way she looses heart because he will not look at or speak to her. His resolve weakened and wanting to console and reassure her he turns to look at her and she again dies before him. But true to form as he sings one of the most beautiful arias in opera over her body the gods again relent and restore her to life ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ (What shall I do without Euridice). I know what you’re thinking, an opera with a happy ending!

Janet Baker sings ‘Che farò senza Euridice’

This was a concert performance in St. Peters church in Drogheda so no costumes, no sets, no acting and as relating to this opera in particular, no dancing. Mezzo Soprano Sharon Carty was engaging and in full voice as Orfeo and Soprano Sarah Power an excellent Euridice. Emma Nash took the part of Amore and the wonderful acoustics in the church did the voices of the main characters and the chorus proud. The Irish Baroque orchestra conducted from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan gave an enthusiastic and solid performance.

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This was a stripped down version of a fully staged and choreographed production Irish National Opera are touring at the moment with United Fall dance company. Despite the fact that the singing and playing were wonderful I don’t really think a concert setting of this full opera worked all that well. Most operatic concert performances will be a selection of pieces possibly built round a theme, many of which the audience may already know or a full opera which is semi-staged with costume and some contextual setting. A classical work like this, even though it is not overly long at 1.5 hours, being sung in Italian with no staging robbed it of too much context and entertainment for it to be successful. It was a bit of a marathon to have no accompanying drama and indeed no interval. Having said that it was wonderful to have this seminal work from the operatic canon performed in Drogheda by such talented musicians and singers.

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DIT Conservatory present ‘…Tancredi e Clorinda’

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is a fascinating little piece of musical drama (see previous post). Written in 1624 shortly after Opera as we know it was born, began flexing its limbs and realised its ability to capture attention and imagination. Opera was moving out of the palaces of royalty and nobility, spreading its wings and becoming an entertainment for a paying public. Venice was the cradle of the democratisation of this nascent art form and it was there that Claudio Monteverdi wrote this 30 minutes of musical combat. The DIT Conservatory of Music & Drama presented it at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin as part of a baroque double with Henry Purcell’s early English classic Dido & Aeneas.

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Smock Alley Theatre & the main performance space.

Smock Alley Theatre has been recently refurbished and has a rich and long history going back to the 17th Century Theatre Royal on the same site. An appropriate venue then for this evening’s baroque entertainment. The minimal set consisted of a monochrome grey torch stand, podium and water font set against a similarly grey solid backdrop, all bathed under a misty blue light. This created a very classical feel and allusions back to ancient greek drama. Unlike the original piece, which has only three characters, Tancredi, Clorinda and a narrator Testo who does most of the heavy vocal lifting, this production had seven. Three narrators (Oisín O Dálaigh, Sarah Kilcoyne & Rheanne Breen), and two each for the combatants (Ciaran Crangle & Ross Fitzpatrick as Tancredi & Naho Zoizumi & Letizia Delmastro as Clorinda). I wasn’t really sure how this would work out but it did share the heavy vocal duties of Testo and created an interesting dynamic with the combatants each having a second, rather like a boxer has someone in his corner for encouragement and support.

The costumes were traditional with Crusader tunics, armour & helmets and the fight scenes were very well choreographed. Their fervour echoing the varying tempo and intensity of the music as the exhaustive combat commences, breaks off and resumes. Both combatants had their seconds egging them on and we could clearly hear the adversaries panting with exhaustion after each engagement of flailing swords. Clorinda’s mortal wounding was particularly well acted by Letizia Delmastro as she clung to the victorious Ross Fitzpatrick’s statuesque Tancredi and slowly slid down to the ground. Tancredi stands tall looking down as her life ebb away. One of those times when an additional heartbreaking silence sits on top of an already silent audience.

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Programme cover & the sparse stage design with the musicians nestled along the front row of seating.

It may not have been ideal to have the musicians squeezed between the seating and the stage but the six piece ensemble played splendidly. The harpsichord, strings & flute creating a restrained baroque backdrop to the drama which was echoed by the heavily tiered wooden pew seating in this beautiful little theatre who’s history goes back to the baroque period.

I really enjoyed this production. Baroque opera is in the midst of a renaissance at the moment and it was wonderful to see this rather rarely performed work being staged in Ireland. It had an energy and realism in the combat which was a credit to the students and their tutors.  As usual surtitles are a bugbear of mine. They could not be seen from the wings where I was seated but in fairness that was because of the shape of the theatre space and I would imagine there isn’t much call for surtitles at this venue.