Thursday 15 November 2018

They said it couldn't be done... but it could

  • Orfeo ed Euridice, Town Hall, Galway
  • Come on Home, Peacock Theatre, Dublin
Performing Orfeo are the INO ensemble of Javier Martin, Sarah Power, Sophia Preidel, Dominica Williams, Stephanie Dufresne, Fearghal Curtiss, and Robyn Byrne, while on the right are Sharon Carty and Emma Nash
Performing Orfeo are the INO ensemble of Javier Martin, Sarah Power, Sophia Preidel, Dominica Williams, Stephanie Dufresne, Fearghal Curtiss, and Robyn Byrne, while on the right are Sharon Carty and Emma Nash
In Come On Home at the Peacock are Sean O'Callaghan, Kathy Rose O'Brien, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. Photo: Patrick Redmond

Emer O'Kelly

An outstanding version of Orfeo proves touring opera can work.

The biggest challenge in mounting a classical opera for a touring production in Ireland is usually envisaging it for varying spaces of limited size and facility. When you add in consistent and persistent under-funding for this most expensive of all art forms, (despite self-congratulatory denials from various forms of "authority"), it's a wonder that anything comes off.

So when you see the new production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (at the Town Hall in Galway, and touring nationwide early next year) you can only gasp in admiration. Main producers are Irish National Opera, in co-production with Galway International Arts Festival, United Fall Dance company, and the Irish Baroque Orchestra (which is in the pit under conductor Peter Whelan). And it's a triumph for all.

Director and choreographer Emma Martin has joined with set designer Sabine Dargent and lighting designer Stephen Dodd, with costumes by Catherine Fay, to expand a cast of three soloists, a chorus of three, and a dance troupe of four into a weird and surreal underworld peopled by unimaginable Furies, and ending in the tranquil fields of Elysium amid cavorting sprites.

Romantic, tragic, and a masterpiece of monochrome, Martin's concept of the Gluck piece with Whelan's surgingly beautiful conducting, brings alive the "purling streams and murmuring air" of the libretto as the doomed Orfeo surmounts his terrors to find his dead wife Euridice in the Elysian fields, only to lose her again by disobeying the instructions of the god Amore not to look at her until they reach the upper world again.

The flute, oboe, and harp solos (Miriam Kaczor, Leo Duarte, and Maria Cleary) which give "life" to the sequences, are a perfect foil for Sharon Carty's truly unmissable purity in the intensely demanding role as Orfeo, well matched by Sarah Power's mysterious Euridice and Emma Nash's powerfully soaring Amore.

For those who said it couldn't be done with reference to quality touring opera in Ireland: it can. It is. And for those who said there wasn't an audience for it: if Galway is anything to go by: there is.

*******

It's not "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing" - more a tale told by a prototype, signifying the almost wearyingly familiar.

And to deliver the harsh irony of the former phrase, a play needs to transcend the latter. This Phillip McMahon's Come on Home doesn't succeed in doing (an Abbey commission playing at the Peacock.) It may be that McMahon is too close to his subject, his work having come to be identified with "queer culture", and the central character of the play is a would-be martyr figure of that culture.

Michael is home for his mother's funeral after nearly 20 years in London. Tick. He's a "spoiled priest". Tick. His father never forgave him for that, but his mother secretly met him from time to time. Tick. He's gay, and screwed up about it, due to be being from judgmental small town Ireland. Tick.

In 1958, the gay element would merely have been implied; worse, 90pc of the audience would have missed it. Times have moved on, thank goodness. But in Come On Home, it does rather seem that the audience is being asked to "go to confession" for the sins of past generations. The play is a torrent of accusation of the society in which gay people lived. Except that it implies that in the Church-ridden, vicious, narrow-minded place which Ireland was until very recently, only the homosexual community was damaged. Yes, there is a brave attempt to take on other images: that of the feckless young man refusing to take responsibility for the pregnancy of his girlfriend, the historical damage and subsequent alcoholism of a man frequently raped by his Christian Brother schoolteacher, only to be rejected when he tried to seek help from his father. (That's Michael's two brothers, comprehensively messed up...)

In fact the whole thing would hang together extremely well as the story of a fractured, irreversibly damaged family, were it not for the final 15-minute confrontation between Michael and the former lover he ran away from. Improbably, having met in the seminary where apparently the majority of students were there because it was "a job and an education" and none felt any responsibility towards vows of any kind, the lover is now the curate of the parish.

The thesis propounded in this self-flagellating tirade is that the Catholic priesthood is an open refuge for gays to have a full, if not happy, sex life. This is presented as something entirely outside faith or religion, and appears to be a plea for sympathy. Another interpretation, of course, would be that it is a contemptible, cowardly, dishonest and exploitative way of life, and always was.

The saving grace is that there are fine performances throughout, and McMahon's crackling dialogue (apart from the aforementioned closing tirade) keeps it all moving, despite slightly slow direction from Rachel O'Riordan which also creates a "false finish".

Declan Conlon, in particular, shines as the drunkard Brian, with Ian Lloyd Anderson as the irresponsible Ray, and Billy Carter as Michael. Kathy Rose O'Brien and Aislin McGuckin are the women who carry several cans, and there's excellent support from Sean O'Callaghan as the venal Father Aidan Cleary and Des Nealon as a "traditional" parish priest, (complete with tipple).

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