I came to this production remembering the aria "What is life to me without thee" as sung by Kathleen Ferrier and Joan Sutherland. Which made the Italian libretto and Orpheo being sung by a counter-tenor something of an adjustment. But the clever use of surtitles projected on the back wall of the set, and the letters dripping like blood before they disappeared minimised the language issues and added to the creepy atmosphere.
Which is that of a mental asylum – more Dickensian than modern, with Orpheo at times being strapped to a hospital bed. The program notes tell us "the world is fractured by his despair and his cravings. It becomes unstable. Hell is a place inside himself and is populated with fragments of his psyche. There is no escape".
Circa adds to that swirling world of dreams and nightmare as they morph from one near impossible feat of athleticism to another; the first moments of the production have a scarlet clad woman hanging near the top of the opened curtain in one of the most arresting openings I have seen in opera. There were times in the production where so much was going on that one felt something like over-load.
Paul Ballam-Cross puts it well "I couldn't keep my eyes off them. That said there were at least a few points where the audience's feeling certainly didn't match the movement of the plot. At one point, Orfeo was lamenting his unsuccessful search for Eurydice, while the audience ooh-ed and aah-ed over some acrobatics behind him." Nonetheless the whole effect was engaging and powerful, and one hopes that Circa and Opera Queensland will continue exploring their creative relationship – I for one would be keen to see what they do next.
This is not, and never has been, a "feel-good" opera – how could it be when it explores, long before the phrase was popularised, "the denial of death" and its inevitability? Which is a challenge to the lead singers. Counter-tenor Owen Willett's performance is moving and convincing – and he even has the courage to involve himself in the gymnastics. I will still revert to Kathleen Ferrier's version of the "Euridice" aria – but Willett's fits this production like a glove. Soprano Christie Peluso both looks and sings the part. And both convey hope and despair, pain and longing.
So, if you are prepared to over-load on angst and athleticism, this is a ground-breaking production well worth seeing.
Long may Circa and Opera Queensland continue their relationship and go from strength to strength.
Conductor Dane Lam
Director Yaron Lifschitz Costumes Libby McDonnell Set Design Yaron Lifschitz
Lighting Alex Berlage
Video Boris Bagattini
Associate Director Heather Fairbairn
Associate Circus Director Bridie Hooper
Choreography Yaron Lifschitz, Bridie Hooper and the Circa Ensemble
Orpheus Owen Willetts
Eurydice & Amore Natalie Christie Peluso Opera Queensland Chorus
Queensland Symphony Orchestra