Produced without adornment, Shannon Murphy’s staging of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice as part of the inaugural Spectrum NOW festival is a treat to savour. Staged within the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ entrance hall, restaurant and old courts, it is a moving processional presentation of one of Gluck’s reform operas which seeks to invigorate and reform our perception of opera itself, what it is, can be, and can be capable of, and it succeeds with an elegant simplicity and ingenuity which is beguiling.
Beginning on the steps of the gallery as the dusk falls into night, the gallery doors open and black-clad spirits file towards the road. A black car pulls up and a gaunt-looking Orfeo (Silvia Colloca) steps gingerly out, wearing dark glasses, her hair falling about her face. As she makes her way through the portico, inside the gallery, we follow, hushed into awed reverence. Inside, a small chamber orchestra is nestled in one corner of the vestibule, while a dead Euridice (Catherine Bouchier) lies surrounded by flowers (designed by Dr Lisa Cooper). As the black-clad spirits respectfully part the audience, Amore (Stacey Alleaume) appears, dressed in a white dress and sneakers, a garland of electric candle-bulbs on her head. The scene changes and we are ushered through the Old Courts, past centuries-old masterpieces, in respectful silence, as a small choir sang us on our way to the restaurant where we were handed masks, and encouraged to descend into Hell, the gallery’s restaurant, where supper was served, and the opera continued as we eat and drink, tormented by leering spirits. Orfeo climbs onto a table and tries to reason with the spirits, before we were ushered back to the entrance hall. As Orfeo returns to earth leading a now-awakened Euridice, the sprits (now dressed in simple white shifts) dance and spin and coalesce around the travellers, as the lovers lament their cruel situation. In the opera’s final moments, as Amore returns to reawaken Euridice from her second-death, the spirits dance with a joyful abandon which you can only smile at and admire the Murphy’s audacity to devise and stage such an event.
Gluck’s music, already simply scored in an attempt to attain classical purity, soars in these high-ceilinged spaces, the crisp sound of the singers and instruments capably filling the rooms more than any framed artwork could. There’s an exquisite beauty to the music too, a kind of shimmering fragility which is juxtaposed against a forceful vitality, an almost tangible sorrow and fury which bubbles and ripples through the story. Played here by an ensemble of twelve musicians, under conductor Luke Spicer’s careful baton it can only resound and ultimately uplift as we are all urged to “let love triumph, and all the world serve the empire of beauty.”
Murphy’s direction, as always, is bold and courageous, and there’s a simplicity here which belies its logistical and practical technicalities. The gallery’s halls and rooms, normally full of people, are now necessarily empty, while their framed subjects seem the perfect accompaniment for our journey to hell and back again, making sure we pass conveniently pertinent pieces of mythically alluding and thematically relevant art. There are flourishes here – such as the opening image of the sleeping Euridice, the red neon sign pointing down to Hell on the restaurant wall while the gaping blackness of the city at night forms a backdrop of void, and the hospital gurney for Euridice at the end – which are magical and inspired pieces of staging. Other moments, such as the dance of the spirits at the beginning of the third act, are slightly lost in the space, pushed too far back behind glass walls and with misbehaving lighting marring their well-intentioned effect.
But it is the music and the singing which transcends and enlivens here, invigorates too, and it is a delight to see an opera freed from the shackles of a traditional theatre and operatic conventions. This is one journey to Hell that you’ll savour for days to come, and marks the beginning of a new era in opera performance – we are no longer passive audience members, but active participants in the story’s telling and unfolding – and it only serves to make for a more personal and personable evening, a more memorable occasion.