It was an interesting decision by Guest Creative Director, Lindy Hume, to look back to the era of European Enlightenment for inspiration for her mini summer festival of opera experiences for Opera Australia.
When writing Orpheus and Eurydice, Gluck was heavily influenced by the writings of Francesco Algarotti who declared that operas “should delight the eyes and ears, rouse up and affect the hearts of an audience without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense”.
Gluck’s opera premiered in 1762, and tells the story of a young man who ventures into the underworld to rescue his wife who died on their wedding night. Gluck wrote his opera for just three characters, a chorus and an orchestra. As much of the singing is static, he also included plenty of ballet music.
Lifschitz’s concept has the entire opera taking place in a stark white asylum, with Orpheus strapped to a bed for much of the opera. The events being witnessed by the audience are taking place in Orpheus’ imagination. It was premiered by Opera Queensland in 2019, and certainly ticks all of Algarotti’s boxes.
The very first vision is of Eurydice. She is costumed in red and suspended high above the stage. Slowly, twitching fitfully in the clouds, she is lowered to the floor.
There is nothing static about Lifschitz’s stagings. The stage is filled with a constant stream of extraordinary stage pictures, drawing on the skills of ten extraordinary athletes who keep the audience on the edge of their seats with their truly breathtaking acrobatic feats.
How these acrobatics represent aspects of the story-telling is not always clear, but they are certainly spectacular and a major reason for why this production is so fascinating.
Offsetting the constant movement of the acrobats, the chorus in identical black costumes, form stationary tableaus or process around the outskirts of the stage while maintaining perfect harmonies. It is only in the final scene that they get the opportunity to glam up in Libby McDonnell’s fanciful, elegant individual costumes.
Atmospheric lighting by Alexander Berlage and extraordinary projections by Boris Bagattini which featured huge images and surtitles which disintegrated and melted away when projected onto the stark white walls, added to the unworldly atmosphere of the production.
French countertenor, Christophe Dumaux, in his Sydney Opera House debut, plays Orfeo. He carries the bulk of the solo singing, and fascinates with his ringing, silver-toned voice, whether strapped to a bed, participating in acrobatic manoeuvres or strung up by his ankles. However he is at his most glorious singing Orpheus’s all-important solo, Che faro senza Eurydice?
On opening night, the roles of both Eurydice and Amore were played by diminutive soprano Sandy Leung, a full-time member of the Opera Australia chorus, who stepped into the role at short notice when Cathy-Di Zhang became ill.
Leung was born and studied in Hong Kong, where she sung principal roles. In 2017, she joined Opera Australia as a full-time member of its chorus for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s production of Carmen. Since then, she’s completed many full-time chorus seasons with the company.
This performance unexpectedly became her Australian solo debut. Judging on her assured performance however, this was certainly not obvious. She quickly won over the audience with her sweet, clear soprano and confident demeanour, even managing Lifschitz’s acrobatic stagings with remarkable élan, while creating one of those “A Star is Born” moments for the audience.
Dane Lam, who conducted the original 2019 production, and is well-known by Canberra audiences for his conducting of National Opera’s production of La Clemenza di Tito, guided the Opera Australia Orchestra through Gluck’s sparkling score, obviously revelling in the opportunity to share his fascination with this opera.
Running just 80 minutes and presented without interval, this production so unique, innovative and entertaining, it would be a shame if it were not seen in opera houses, not only around Australia, but around the world.
Orpheus & Eurydice
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 12 January 2024
Season continues to 31 January 2024
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Images: Opera Australia Chorus, Circa Ensemble and Cristophe Dumaux as Orfeo in Orpheus & Eurydice – photo by Keith Saunders | Opera Australia Chorus in Orpheus & Eurydice – photo by Keith Saunders | Opera Australia Chorus, Circa Ensemble and Sandy Leung as Eurydice in Orpheus & Eurydice -photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens OAM