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Review: Orpheus and Eurydice at Sydney Opera House

Updated: Jan 18

Review by Anja Bless

Currently being presented by Opera Australia as part of Sydney Festival, is Opera Queensland’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice, in association with Circa. One of Gluck’s most well-known and popular works, it follows the tragic myth of Orpheus as he travels to the underworld to save his true love, Eurydice. But this is where this production’s alignment with the traditional opera begins to diverge. For rather than your typical ballet and dance to fill the musical interludes and frame the opera performers, this production instead features the mind-boggling feats of Circa’s acrobats. This production of Orpheus and Eurydice therefore blends song, music, theatre, dance, and circus to create an operatic spectacle fit for the gods. 

Circa’s performers, impeccably costumed by Libby McDonnell and directed by Yaron Lifschitz, create a fluidity through the performance, carrying (sometimes literally) Orpheus through his journey. With the playfulness and drama you might attribute to Greek gods and their servants, the acrobats dance, move, swing, and leap around the opera performers, adding dynamism to a simple yet effective set (also designed by Lifschitz). The audience is able to enjoy great feats of aerial and physical acrobatics, sometimes drawing audible gasps and nervous giggles from audience members as the performers quite literally put their bodies on the line. The spectacle of Circa’s contribution to Orpheus and Eurydice is therefore central to its splendour and entertainment value. Although, there are times where it is difficult to know where to look as the acrobatics distract occasionally from the rest of the performance unfolding in their midst. 

However, the acrobats from Circa are by no means the only stars of the show. The main cast of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is quite sparse, with only three main roles, and in this performance there is only two artists who perform them. The first, who deserves special mention, was Sandy Leung, who stepped in as Eurydice/Amore due to the illness of Cathy Di-Zhang. Leung therefore had the additional challenge of performing as understudy on opening night which she did seemingly without a hitch. Leung was captivating in her soprano, both as the tragic Eurydice and the taunting Amore. Although, the double-casting of Eurydice/Amore did lead to some confusing moments as it was somewhat unclear when Leung was playing what role. While Leung’s characterisation did shift nicely between the characters, she would have been greatly assisted by a slight change in costuming to make the difference clearer. 

Performing as Orpheus is Christophe Demaux, who gives a faultless portrayal of the maddening and anguished journey of the bard. Demaux is captivating in his debut in this role. His countertenor is divine, though perhaps unexpected from his tall and bearded frame. While there were times where the acrobats in this performance stole the limelight, Demaux was quickly able to draw it back with his deft vocal abilities and endearing performativity. Particularly impressive was Demaux’s own participation in the circus elements, all done without missing a beat in his singing. 

Other elements of the production worthy of note include the projection design by Boris Bagattini, which also provided the useful translation of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Italian libretto. Strangely this was missing in the final song, which made it more difficult for the audience to follow the performance and the conclusion of the story. The costuming of the chorus was also substantially different in this closing number (though the costumes themselves were spectacular), which also added further confusion for the audience. Nonetheless, the chorus as a whole performed admirably in amongst the acrobatics, set changes, and physical positions in which they needed to sing. Some members of the chorus at times seemed uncomfortable or hesitant in the more physically dynamic numbers, but their professionalism and musicality remained. This was no doubt helped by the efforts and support from conductor Dane Lam. 

Minor critiques aside, Orpheus and Eurydice as presented by Opera Australia is a triumph. An exciting example of contemporary theatre with a mixing of performance styles that leads to a thrilling and captivating opera. If you have never seen an opera before, this would be a fantastic entry point. While for opera lovers it retains the technical and performative prowess of opera with new examples of human talent and its capacity to amaze and inspire.

Image Credit: Keith Saunders


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