Monday February 26, 2024
ORPHEUS & EURYDICE
Review

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE

By Diana Simmonds
January 13 2024

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE, Opera Australia and Sydney Festival present Opera Queensland’s production in association with Circa. Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, SOH, 1-31 January 2024. Photography by Keith Saunders

This Orpheus & Eurydice, directed and designed by Circa’s Yaron Lifschitz, achieved a semi-standing ovation on opening night. Nevertheless, it’s odd to witness such a response to an opera entirely dominated by a mob of acrobats and their leader. A performance where the music and singers were a sideshow, incidentals on the way to tottering human pyramids, and yet more ways to do the splits.

However, a fair part of the enraptured response would have been for Sandy Leung. The Opera Australia Chorus member stepped into the role of Eurydice at the last minute after intended star Cathy-Di Zhang took ill. Leung, the Hong Kong-born, Australia-since-2015 soprano, was heroic in the role of the tragic lover, not only in singing flawlessly but also in coping with the physical demands of the acrobatic staging and choreography.

Also heroic, as well as bringing Orpheus to life with a glorious counter-tenor voice, was Christophe Dumaux. Although, as spruiked by OA on its website, The New York Times had said of him, in an unnamed role, “Tall, trim and athletic… in one taunting aria, he executes a full body flip as easily as tossing off a trill.” This would explain why Dumaux didn’t seem fazed by singing while negotiating the backs and shoulders of a few acrobats, nor at being strung up by his ankles and hoisted on high for the finale. (Symbolic much?)

Gluck’s very 1700s work is one where a corps de ballet usually spends as much time – if not more than the singers – keeping the audience occupied with colour and movement. As well as two indelibly beautiful arias, it’s a stately piece and with its passage to and from Hades, it also most often relies on some literal settings to inject drama where little exists in the score. Lifschitz’s stage design is all white and empty but for a small, neon-lit greenhouse-like structure, in which the lovers are occasionally incarcerated and, in one comical coup de théâtre, the entire chorus is also accommodated.

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE

In 2024 it’s likely that, in keeping with the current fad for all-white domestic interiors with grey and black accents, Hades really could be stark white (with leavening elements from lighting designer Alexander Berlage). However, the largely featureless stage makes it difficult to know whether the lovers are above or below ground. And the libretto doesn’t help as the stylish surtitles, splashed in fast disappearing text on the back wall, are mostly missed as they’re competing for attention with acrobats doing their unrelated thing. If you don’t already know, or remember, what’s going on, figuring it out could be tricky.

In the pit meanwhile, conductor Dane Lam made much of the indomitable OA Orchestra. On stage, the OA Chorus was also its customary outstanding musical presence and also looked the goods in costume designer Libby McDonnell’s various combinations of black and white. Elsewhere, softly-draped, red shifts and wraps (acrobats and Eurydice) somehow heightened the staging’s austerity rather than adding colour.

In the end, the visual blurring of Earth and Hades while spending 80 minutes watching and listening to two fine singers being dissed in the service of meaningless athleticism mostly brought to mind Brecht’s Hollywood Elegies:

The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion / People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts  / They have come to the conclusion that God / Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to / Plan two establishments but / Just the one: heaven. It / Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful / As hell.

ORPHEUS & EURYDICE

Next year: Lucia di Lammermoor On Ice!

NB: four stars for the singers, orchestra, and chorus.

 

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