Irish National Opera
‘Valiant” is probably the best word to describe Irish National Opera in a time of plague and misery. We’ve been accustomed to having to bewail the paucity of opera available in Ireland — and Fergus Sheil has been one of those who said it most fervently and fought hardest to change the situation. Then came his chance, with the launch of Irish National Opera, and his status as its artistic director.
Yes, there’s always been Wexford Festival Opera, that bright shining light of late autumn, which lifted the spirits of opera fans, despite many of its attendees being there for the frocks and the interval rather than the music. But box office is box office, however it is funded.
Indeed, Wexford has been unfairly unappreciated in Ireland, while lauded internationally. It won the best international opera festival award in 2016, and there was barely a murmur at home. Had it been a rock festival, there would have been State receptions, even a statue.
So it was a devastating blow for Wexford’s artistic director, Rosetta Cucchi, when her first season coincided with Covid lockdown, pretty well writing off her first ambitious Shakespeare-themed festival.
But where the word ‘national’ is concerned, Fergus Sheil has been taking opera seriously. With the cultural sector struggling for survival, its audiences effectively abandoned by the authorities in favour of a concentration on sport, Sheil has been providing a stream of work, including the specially commissioned 20 Shots of Opera. That’s available online, free, with much more from INO’s already impressive repertoire.
It’s a bit unfortunate that the production with the lightest heart, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, starring the dazzling Tara Erraught, conducted by Sheil, and seen at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in 2019, is only available on sound, so director Orpha Phelan’s wickedly whimsical designs are not on show.
But it’s still a treat, as is the RTÉ recording of the 2019 production of The Magic Flute, a small but impressive production, with a cast mainly comprised of Irish singers.
Full visual power is available for Tom Creed’s 2017 production (for Opera Theatre Company, now under INO’s umbrella) of the Handel masterpiece Acis and Galatea. Originally featuring gods and nymphs at play and war, Creed began by making the chorus a band of mushroom pickers on a night out in a fairly god-forsaken country ‘n’ Irish pub, where the nymph heroine Galatea is the barmaid.
Her lover Acis is a returned emigrant, engagement ring in his backpack, with the proposal made among the kegs.
Inside, the mushroom pickers get moving on some spankingly expert line-dancing — yes, you can line-dance to Handel. Honestly. Meanwhile, the giant Polyphemus, bent on having his way with the lovely Galatea, becomes the local snivelling gombeen man.
You couldn’t write it, and Handel didn’t. But it is one of the most gloriously, impishly effective pieces of opera I have ever seen, while remaining utterly faithful to theme and narrative.
Susanna Fairbairn and Eamonn Mulhall sing the leads, with Edward Grint as Polyphemus.
Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was a co-production with Galway International Arts Festival and United Fall Dance in 2018, with Peter Whelan conducting the Irish Baroque Orchestra.
Sharon Carty sings the role of the disobedient Orfeo who rescues his dead queen Euridice ( Sarah Power) from the underworld, only to lose her when he turns to look at her before the gods permit.
Three lead singers (Emmet Nash is the god, Amore), a chorus of three, and four dancers create a magical, mysterious, surgingly beautiful experience which, even online manages almost to create the full atmosphere that I saw in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre.
Mozart’s Il Seraglio has been divided into a mini-series, having been filmed in lockdown conditions, with musicians and singers working in isolation from their own homes around Europe, and for that alone, it’s an achievement, leaving aside soprano Claudia Boyle, and its overall fidelity to the beauty of Mozart’s score.
Also available is The Barber of Seville from the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (2016) (under Wide Open Opera’s banner, Sheils’ initiative which preceded INO), again with Rossini diva Tara Erraught.
St Patrick’s week was marked by the company with a live-stream of La Boheme, with Celine Byrne as Mimi, with the Irish National Opera chorus and orchestra (not available online at present) – but the rest can be viewed on YouTube and if you feel like thanking them, a contribution can be made online to a company that takes its audience seriously and serves it generously.