Blackwater Valley Opera Festival: Impressive Gluck production among the treats in Lismore

Orfeo ed Euridice was possibly the best ever opera seen at the festival, while the fringe events also provided much to enjoy
Blackwater Valley Opera Festival: Impressive Gluck production among the treats in Lismore

Kelli-Ann Masterson was among the stars of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Lismore. Picture: Patrick Browne

The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival in Co Waterford made a welcome return to a June bank holiday slot. Mainly based around Lismore, there was a giddy atmosphere as patrons emerged from cars and coaches clutching picnic baskets, umbrellas, and blankets, and climbed onto golf caddies ferrying opera-goers to the Castle Garden entrance.

A change in artistic direction this year saw a top billing for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, an opera with more emotional depth than the fizzy Italian comedies that are a staple of the company. Another innovation is the engagement of a choreographer, David Bolger, as director. Eight dancers of CoisCéim Dance Theatre, blended unobtrusively with an eleven-strong chorus, moved around the wide stable yard space in beautifully choreographed movements creating striking tableaux as the denizens of Earth, the Elysian Fields, and the Underworld.

Peter Whelan directed the Irish Baroque Orchestra, placed off stage and to one side out of the sightline of the audience and performers, perhaps weakening the connection between instrumentalists and singers. Stand-out moments were the solos on harp and a soulful chalumeau.

Maree Kearns sets’ were dominated by heavy wooden gates, and monochrome costumes evoked a black and white Victorian era. Chinese countertenor Meili Li carried the show in the title role. His delivery of the lament Che Faro did not disappoint in its poignant intensity. Aoife Gibney as Euridice was radiant in a glittering snow-white gown.

One of the free lunchtime recitals at Lismore, where audience members were also treated to a  Baldwin's Ice Cream. Picture: Ed Guiry
One of the free lunchtime recitals at Lismore, where audience members were also treated to a  Baldwin's Ice Cream. Picture: Ed Guiry

Kelli-Ann Masterson as Amor stole the scenes in a cheeky pantomime costume with top hat askew. As darkness descended in act 3, Eamon Fox’s dramatic lighting design came into play creating a magical sense of between-worlds in the most memorable production that I have seen at Lismore.

A strength of the festival is the fringe events that take place in the churches, parks, and handsome houses. Violinist Phoebe White and pianist Ellen Jansson impressed at a lunchtime recital at St Carthage’s Cathedral. 

The book ending of a song recital at Salterbridge House with unexpected sets by a flute and piano duo making for a two-hour running time was an embarrassment of riches. Niall Kinsella, under the Irish Songmaker’s, marque put together an entertaining programme exploring songs by French composers with Irish connections.

Among the selection were songs by Paris based composers Augusta Homes and Swan Hennessy (both with Cork parents), heard for a first time in Ireland. Overall, it was great to see this gem of a festival restored to full strength.

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