OPERA THEATRE Company – Ireland’s national touring opera company – come to the Town Hall on Thursday June 12 at 8pm with Monteverdi’s powerful and memorable masterpiece, Orfeo.
For more than 400 years, the dramatic music and raw emotional power of this baroque tour de force has remained undiminished. With Orfeo, first performed in 1607, Monteverdi created the first great opera that not only survived the centuries, but still enthrals modern audiences.
The opera is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, and dramatises the story of his descent to Hades in the quest to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the land of the living.
Orfeo opens with the happy wedding day celebrations of Orfeo and Euridice. Melancholy has been banished now that Orfeo has at last found true love. In the company of his joyful acolytes, Orfeo is poised to marry his beloved but then mortal disaster strikes as Euridice receives a fatal snakebite.
Can Orfeo dare to rescue his lover from the Underworld or will he lose own his life in an impossible contest with Death?
For this production, Opera Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Ben Barnes conjures a new and richly re-imagined staging of Orfeo. Sung in English, the captivating score is performed by the OTC Baroque Ensemble with music direction by Andrew Synnott.
Among the cast is exciting young Irish soprano Daire Halpin who sings the roles of a nymph and Prosperpina, Queen of the Underworld. Ahead of OTC’s Galway visit, she took some time to talk about her work and performing in Orfeo.
Dubliner Daire grew up in a musical family; both her parents are lecturers in music and her sister Sarah is a double bassist. While Daire also took music lessons when she was young, singing was always her first love.
“I really wanted to sing from a very young age,” she reveals. “Because I grew up in such a musical family I was encouraged very much to learn the piano and, later on, the flute and I became very busy with all of that; my parents would say ‘There’ll be time, you’ll get to singing eventually but you might as well do the difficult things along the way’ - little did they know singing could be the most difficult!”
Halpin graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where she studied with Ameral Gunson. Since her graduation she has been in much demand as a soloist and has performed in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, the US and Britain – though she always relishes the chance to perform in Ireland.
“For me it’s a real pleasure to be able to come home and do what I feel I do best,” she says. “I’m experienced at this stage and I think Orfeo is going to be a really exciting show.”
In talking about Orfeo, she begins by outlining the kind of challenge this early opera poses for modern singers.
“The biggest challenge is in the way the piece is structured, “ she explains. “In early operas the emphasis is always on recitative which is just like sung speech and it’s a very specific style and you have to familiarise yourself with that before you can approach it and develop your character within that.”
Daire goes on to describe how Ben Barnes and OTC have decided to stage the work.
“It’s going to be set in the 1940s; visually there’s a recognisable colour-palette,” she says. “They’ve set the action in this hotel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a place of celebration at the beginning where Orfeo and Euridice are celebrating their wedding but then it decays as we go into the Underworld and Orfeo has to go and find Euridice and try to bring her back to life.
“It’s a wonderfully versatile palette on which we can draw all these different references about the various character relationships within the piece.”
The original opera features familiar pastoral figures like shepherds and nymphs, so how have these been modified to fit into OTC’s staging?
“You have these different worlds of characters,” Daire replies. “There are the shepherds, and so forth, in the score and they become a band of friends of Orfeo and later on when they’re spirits in the chorus they become staff of the hotel. So in each scene the hotel gives a backdrop whereby we understand the kind of people who are walking around onstage.”
Halpin is particularly enjoying playing the role of Proserpina.
“Proserpina is the wife of Pluto and she’s very interesting to play because of her own story,” she notes. “She was stolen by Pluto and dragged to the Underworld to become his wife so her story kind of echoes Euridice’s. She pleads Euridice’s case to Pluto and asks him to release her so Orfeo can be happy. All the time she is thinking about the people she herself left behind and how she would love to console them but she can’t, so she tries to manipulate Pluto into doing her will.”
As well as her roles in Orfeo, one other noteworthy project Halpin sings in is BBC Radio 4’s new recording of Joyce’s Ulysses which will be broadcast this coming Bloomsday, June 16.
“We mostly recorded songs mentioned in the text,” she discloses. “I do a one-woman version of ‘La Cidarem la Mano’ from Don Giovanni by Mozart, and also ‘Love’s Young Dream’. Another one is ‘Just a Song at Twilight’ which features heavily in Molly Bloom’s text. It was a wonderful experience, we did the recording on Paddy’s Day so it was really nice for me to be involved with this very Irish thing on the day.”
Returning to Orfeo, the OTC production features a top-notch creative and performing team. Design is by Joe Vanek, with lighting by John Comiskey. The cast includes, as well as Halpin, Oliver Mercer (Orfeo ), Irish soprano Sadhbh Dennedy, Karolina Blixt from Sweden, US bass Matthew Treviño, Peter O’Donohoe, and OTC Young Associate Artists Fearghal Curtis and Padraic Rowan.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie