Opera Queensland and Circa take audiences to hell and back in their striking, visceral production of Orpheus and Eurydice.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus is a legendary musician, endowed with such skill that all living things, and even stones, were charmed by his music. The most well-known of the myths surrounding Orpheus is the one which Christoph Willibald Gluck (and many others) based his 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice on – the tale of how Orpheus travelled to the underworld to retrieve his dearly beloved wife, Eurydice, from Hades following her untimely death. The only condition is that he must not look back at her until they have returned to the land of the living, or his wife will be taken from him again, forever.
In this rendition by Opera Queensland and Circa, directed by Circa Artistic Director and CEO Yaron Lifschitz, the perilous journey to retrieve his lost beloved takes place in Orpheus’ own mind as he lies, grief-stricken, in an asylum. The performance culminates in a finale that is dramatic, almost grisly, and leaves the audience to question the eternal struggle of desire (Eros) and death (Thanatos), where there is only ever one possible outcome.
The piece opens with Eurydice’s descent into the underworld, performed with impressive grace and strength on aerial straps by a Circa artist. The eight Circa artists who joined Opera Queensland onstage all displayed incredible balance, agile strength, flexibility, and versatility as they executed smooth aerial work on multiple apparatus and heart-stopping falls, tumbles, and leaps, the percussion of their bodies against floor, props, and each other adding to the score in their own way. The Opera Queensland chorus joined the Circa artists to create a swirling mass of bodies and harmonious voices, a visually engaging and immaculately organised chaos. Countertenor Owen Willetts also briefly participated in the circus side of the work, which was admirably done although obviously not as effortless as that of the Circa artists. Willetts gave a brilliant and emotional performance in the role of Orpheus, his voice full of clarity and emotion that left listeners feeling refreshed, and Natalie Christie Peluso brought distinct characterisation and soaring soprano vocals to her dual roles of Eurydice and Amor.
The bright white of the asylum set, designed by Yaron Lifschitz, sat in stark contrast to the black-clad Opera Queensland chorus and the red dresses of Eurydice and Amor, costumed by Libby McDonnell. Lighting design by Alexander Berlage made heavy use of spotlights and added to the storytelling of the work, as did videography by Boris Morris Bagattini. Gluck’s score was beautifully performed by Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dane Lam, who made his mainstage debut with Opera Queensland in this production.
We had never experienced opera before and, frankly, we weren’t sure what to expect. The surtitles, projected in English while the piece was sung in Italian, allowed us to understand what was going on and the circus performance and visual elements ensured that there was always action and movement on stage, whether directly involved with the singers or not. When the house lights warmed back on I couldn’t get up quite yet – I wanted to absorb the full force of the final scenes a few moments longer, and the performance overall left me awed and intrigued by both the form of opera, and the ideas of love, loss, desire, and afterlife explored in the production. The raw physicality of the Circa artists set against the intensity of Gluck’s score and the glorious singing of the two leads and the Opera Queensland chorus made this a thoroughly invigorating introduction to opera.
For ticketing and further information about Orpheus and Eurydice, visit the Opera Queensland website. Playing until 9 November 2019 at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC.