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Castle Freke's stunning ballroom welcomes first guests in decades

April 29th, 2018 7:10 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

From left: Stephen and Barbara Evans-Freke with Irish piano star Maire Carroll, soprano Rachel Croash, and festival chairman Michael Alen-Buckley with Giancarla Alen-Buckley (Photos: Emma Jervis)

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THE centuries-old ballroom of the iconic gothic landmark overlooking the sea, Castle Freke, was given a rare public viewing recently for the launch of an opera festival.

The striking building, which was burnt down by Cromwellian forces in 1648, has been undergoing extensive renovation by current owner Stephen Evans-Freke.

Last week he hosted the launch of this year’s Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, formerly known as the Lismore Opera Festival.

Over 100 invited music lovers and guests got a sneak preview of how the finished mansion might look, as the dramatic backdrop hosted the prestigious event.

‘There’s an amazing amount of young Irish musical talent coming up, but they need our support,’ said Evans-Freke, standing by the piano amidst the soaring arches of the partially-restored ballroom in the family’s historic home, close to the village of Rathbarry.

‘They say music is food for the soul. But these young singers and musicians cannot survive on soul alone. We must support them. The Blackwater Valley Opera Festival has made this its mission,’ he said.

Running from May 29th until June 3rd, the festival is a uniquely Irish version of Europe’s famed country house operas. Sometimes called Ireland’s most beautiful opera experience, the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival features a centrepiece opera performed in a pop-up theatre in the romantic stable courtyard adjacent to Lismore Castle’s enchanting walled gardens.  

A series of recitals in the private drawing rooms of the historic great houses of the Blackwater Valley, as well as a feature talk by historian Peter Murray, are additional highlights of the five-day event. 

The preview event in Castle Freke featured the accomplished Irish piano star Maire Carroll, who received the RDS Collins Memorial Award last year, as well as internationally renowned harpist Jean Kelly. 

Irish soprano Rachel Croash and Irish baritone Rory Musgrave, both of whom will be singing in Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at Lismore Castle, were joined by the young soprano, Carrigaline’s Fiona Falvey from the Cork School of Music. 

The performances were followed by a candlelit dinner of lamb, salads and puddings by Richy of Richy’s Restaurant in Clonakilty. A roaring fire in the cavernous 16th century French fireplace at the head of the ballroom sent smoke up the castle’s chimneys for the first time in decades. 

Festival chairman Michael Alen-Buckley thanked the Evans-Freke family for rallying support in West Cork. 

‘We are incredibly grateful to the Evans-Frekes for their support of the Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, and for bringing together so many wonderful people from Cork in this most spectacular setting,’ he said. ‘This is our first Cork launch ever, and we’re delighted to see the festival growing in every way. This year we’re adding a Wednesday night gala charity opera performance in support of Enable Ireland, three new recitals, and a new venue.’

A series of nine recitals will take place in historic private homes and venues, including Cappoquin House, Salterbridge House, Tourin House, St Carthage Cathedral, and the newly-restored Dromore Yard overlooking the Blackwater River. Performers will include the Irish Heritage Bursary Award winners and guest performers from the Garsington and Nevill Holt Operas.

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