Richard Betts' Corfu experience puts a new spin on the idea of a conducted tour.

A young woman has just thrown a bunch of roses at my feet. I'm almost certain they're not for me. Almost. We're about to hear Christoph Willibald Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice, so I'm forced to assume the flowers will be for the conductor or one of the singers.

For a moment it's possible to dream, though. The setting, the neoclassical Church of St George on the Greek island of Corfu, is after all the sort of place you might expect a floral miracle.

The building was constructed by the British in the 1840s but looks like an ancient temple, and we are surrounded by Greek Orthodox icons; gilded Christs stare at us from every angle, who knows what could happen?

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What happens mostly is music. Corfu is overflowing with it. The music never stops here.

The air is full of jazz (as I write, Charles Mingus' Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is wafting through the open window), as well as chirruping swallows and swifts, and speakers blasting Greek cover versions of pop hits — rarely the originals, oddly.

Despite a population of only 100,000, the island boasts three orchestras and nearly 20 "philharmonic bands".

So in the church, as elsewhere on the island, there is music. But there is magic, too. The opera is performed by students of the Ionian University, and you get the fizzing excitement of young musicians testing themselves, cracking their knuckles in preparation for an assault on the professional music world.

Not all of them will make it. The historically informed orchestral playing isn't as polished as it could be, but they are stylish and committed, and the phrasing is excellent even if the intonation isn't.

A scene from the Ionian University students' performance of Orfeo ed Euridice. Photo / Richard Betts
A scene from the Ionian University students' performance of Orfeo ed Euridice. Photo / Richard Betts

Much of what is good is thanks to the conductor, Kyriaki Kountouri. When I catch her after the concert she's clasping a bunch of congratulatory roses. My roses. She says she's from Cyprus and in just her third year of five at the music school. Aged 21 at the most, Kountouri understandably doesn't have a clear idea of what the future holds, but she has the stage presence of an old hand, with a rock solid down beat and charisma to burn — remember her name.

Kountouri's mentor is Miltos Logiadis, the university's professor of conducting. His aim for these students is to get them to Athens: "They are very talented and deserve to be heard."

Some of them are very talented indeed.

As well as Kountouri there's the mezzo-soprano Nikoletta Ierides who's singing the lead, Orfeo. It's a tough gig. One of only three soloists, Orfeo's on stage for almost the whole opera. Ierides's concentration never flags, though, and her molten chocolate voice is a thing of wonder. Giouli Lygda's Euridice — for whom Orfeo braves the underworld — is, if anything, even better. The soprano has a lovely sound and superb characterisation. She is riveting, and makes the most of a limited role. The pair's Act 3 duet is, for me, the concert's highlight.

Both Lygda and Ierides are in their final year, and Kountouri says it was the serendipity of having two equally gifted singers that prompted the choice of Orfeo ed Euridice, rather than the opera's basis in Greek mythology.

Greece's classical past has less of a grip here than on the mainland. Corfu has been variously Venetian, French, Russian, British, and an independent state, before unification with Greece in 1864.

History is folded over on itself. As an example I'm in a 19th century copy of a 5th century BC building, watching an opera written in the 18th century. While we're contemplating dates, St George's lies within the island's Old Fortress, built mostly in the 15th century but with foundations believed to date from the 6th century. (The Old Fortress should in no way be confused with the New Fortress, which is new-build muck dating from the 1570s.) None of this is old by Greek standards, but still.

Other than the setting, though, the concert is music-making as we know it in New Zealand. The audience is perhaps younger than we're used to (the fact this is a student performance accounts for that), but there's a similar sense of pre-concert anticipation that's recognisable from home.

There's a similar sense of making do with a tight budget, too. The staging is by Panagiotis Adam, an experienced director and guest professor at the university, whose philosophy is that everyone on stage should be moving. The chorus is present for the whole of the first two acts and is in constant motion, contributing a dynamism to the pared-back set.

The applause at the end is deafening, and the delight of the musicians as they take their bows palpable. As the cast and crew drift away into the night I catch a glimpse of a singer leaving. One of her hands is entwined in someone's fingers; in the other she's clutching flowers.

A scene from the Ionian University students' performance of Orfeo ed Euridice. Photo / Richard Betts
A scene from the Ionian University students' performance of Orfeo ed Euridice. Photo / Richard Betts

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