Bringing Opera to Life in Cork: Orpheus

Arts & Culture Editor reviews Cork Operactic Society’s Orpheus at the Everyman.

Just over a year after the award-winning Pagliacci, Cork Operatic Society returned to the Everyman Palace stage with the beautiful and poignant Orpheus. The opera takes its story from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. On the eve of their wedding, Eurydice dies of a snakebite. Orpheus is heartbroken, but the goddess Amore comes and offers him a chance to be reunited with his beloved. Being the greatest singer in the world, he can charm his way to the Elysian Fields and retrieve Eurydice, but under one condition: he must not look at her. If he does, he will lose her forever. But this is opera, and it’s never that simple. Orpheus finds Eurydice, but cannot lead her away without arousing her suspicion. She says: ‘If you love me, you must look at me!’ And he does.

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Tenor Ronald Samm played the title role, while Eurydice is danced by Tara Brandel, whose wonderful expression despite her silence make this story all the more tragic. Majella Cullagh was commanding and sensitive in her role as Amore.

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This dynamic production combined music, theatre, and dance to an exceptionally high standard.  Lisa Zagone’s set and Michael Hurley’s lighting design captured the confusing terror of the Underworld, the serenity of the Elysian Fields, and the struggle of Orpheus, the anguished artist looking for a way to find beauty in his world again. The chorus members’ singing, acting and dancing was impeccable, as they portrayed grievers at Eurydice’s funeral, Furies in the Underworld, and perfect Elysian souls. Tenor Ronald Samm played the title role, while Eurydice is danced by Tara Brandel, whose wonderful expression despite her silence make this story all the more tragic. Majella Cullagh was commanding and sensitive in her role as Amore. Ronald Samm’s performance was full of pathos and torment, and just a hint of madness.

Having Eurydice played by a dancer rather than a singer was just one of the several changes made to Gluck’s 1762 opera by director and conductor John O’Brien. The score was re-orchestrated and adapted for actor-musicians, who performed an almost otherworldly feat by delivering the entire score from memory while playing the parts of instrument-wielding gods. Another significant change was the ending: in Gluck’s version, Orpheus does indeed look at Eurydice and lose her, but when the gods hear his heart-wrenching aria, ‘Che Faro Senza Euridice?’ they take pity on him once more and bring his beloved back to life. O’Brien’s reimagining of the opera has no such fairytale-like optimism, but instead leaves its main character and its audience faced with the very human question of how one deals with death. As Samm sand the aria, the curtain fell on the set, on the gods, on the presence of Eurydice and the world he inhabited. It left the audience questioning if the whole episode was real or just a dream; an alternative reality created by Orpheus through which he could escape his grief.

With Orpheus, Cork Operatic Society has proven once again that opera is far from an alienating art form. It has something for everyone, its messages are universally provocative, and with generous helpings of imagination and talent, it can transport us to another world.