Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is one of those classic operas that’s gone through just about every conceivable production, and, if you keep an eye on international opera news, there’s always a new staging showing up with some sort of twist. This is a variation I hadn’t encountered before though: a staging in collaboration with a circus company, the Brisbane-based Circa. I’ll admit, I was sceptical at first, but soon realised that really, when you get right down to it, is it so different to have a circus troupe instead of the traditional ballet troupe in an operatic performance? Both celebrate remarkable feats of athleticism and strength, so this is one new direction I’m happy for Opera Queensland to explore further.

Orpheus & EurydiceNatalie Christie Peluso in Opera Queensland’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Photo © Jade Ferguson

This production, as far as I can tell, follows the original 1769 Parma version of the score, performed by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Dane Lam. The big differences here are the use of the Italian libretto (the 1774 Paris Opera version is, naturally, in French), and Orfeo being sung by a countertenor. In the original performance, Orfeo’s part was sung by a castrato, but thank goodness that’s not necessary any more.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way – the setting of this production, directed by Circa’s Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz (who also designed the set), doesn’t really work. Orfeo is mad, and the bulk of the action is set in a mental asylum. As the program states, here, “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”.

OK, but this results in some major structural issues. For instance, the first act opens with Orfeo tied to a bed in the asylum. Eventually, he’s allowed to descend into the Underworld itself… which also, conveniently, looks like an asylum. There are some spooky flickering lights at times, as well, so there’s that. Also, aren’t we past the rather hackneyed idea of creepy asylums? It’s worth noting that none of the advertising plays up the mental patient thing either, so perhaps Opera Queensland were aware that it’s not ideal. The sledgehammer subtlety of the beds and belts is a bit on-the-nose, and I’d really have liked to see something a bit more up-to-date, given the modernity and freshness of the rest of the production.

Owen Willetts in Opera Queensland’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Photo © Jade Ferguson

The performance itself was very good. Countertenor Owen Willetts’ Orfeo is charismatic, and appropriately relatable in his search for Eurydice – his entreaties in the aria Deh! placatevi con me, where he attempts to convince the Furies to allow him to pass, were particularly moving. Likewise, soprano Natalie Christie Peluso was excellent. There’s also a rather neat bit of design here, where Peluso plays both Eurydice and Love.

Circa were astonishing, and their incredible athleticism genuinely has to be seen to be believed. Some of their feats were quite literally jaw-dropping, with gasps of wonder coming from the crowd on several occasions. One sequence involving a Eurydice-lookalike daintily stepping across the heads of other members of Circa was particularly impressive. It’s a credit to them as well that, for the most part, the choreography (by Lifschitz, Bridie Hooper and the Circa Ensemble) doesn’t upstage the storyline or singing, since I couldn’t keep my eyes off them. That being 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.

Opera Queensland’s Orpheus & Eurydice. Photo © Jade Ferguson

The video design by Boris Bagattini mostly served to give us the English surtitles (although there were a few effective shots of Eurydice herself spliced in throughout), but this was nonetheless very neatly done. As the mists swirl in the opening aria, so too do the words of the surtitles projected behind the action. It was certainly a step up from having to crane your head to see above the stage itself.

Although I think that the asylum setting is rather stale, there’s still much that’s worthwhile here. See it, be moved by the singing, and be astounded by Circa.

Opera Queensland’s Orpheus & Eurydice is at QPAC until November 9


Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.