a reimagining of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Eurydice” (reorchestrated by Gareth Farr)
Samson Setu – Orpheus
Madison Nonoa – Amor
Deborah Wai Kapohe – Eurydice
Production Design : Tracy Lord Grant
Director: Neil Ieremia
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Lighting: JAX Messenger
Conductor: Marc Taddei
NZ Opera Chorus, Black Grace Dancers
Orchestra Wellington : Concertmaster – Amalia Hall
Violin (Vivian Stephens ), Viola (Susan Fullerton-Smith), Cello (Jane Young)
Clarinet & Saxophone (Mark Cookson)
Trumpet & Flugelhorn (Matt Stein)
Trombone & Euphonium (Peter Maunder)
Marimba (Naoto Segawa &Yoshiko Tsuruta)
Guitars (Gunter Herbig)
Opera House, Wellington September 23rd 2023
I didn’t know until I began exploring the recent performance history of Gluck’s opera that Orpheus and Eurydice had been “reimagined” here in Aotearoa New Zealand before – a 2018 production at the Auckland Arts Festival presented the work as “A Dance Opera” directed and choreographed by Michael Parmenter, and designed then by the present designer, Tracy Lord Grant – on that occasion the opera was sung as the action was “danced”, with everything integrated into a contemporary-style presentation, including numerous visual ”links” and various enactments of and between the opera’s action and everyday society. From the reviews I have read I’m compelled to say that it was certainly something I greatly wished I had seen.
This very different 2023 reworking of a “dance-opera” idea came from director/choreographer Neil Ieremia, one unhesitatingly presenting a Pasifika view as confidently and naturally as one would a world view – throughout, the confidence and surety of the chorus regarding both singing and movement drew me into the central idea of the story’s world, the Samoan words at the extremities of the action effectively “ritualising” the storytelling as potently as any non-vernacular opera libretto does as a matter of course. In fact the chorus here under Ieremia’s direction were as much a “fulcrum” to the action as in any classic Greek play, thus forging links on a number of counts between times and places delineating humanity at large – a heartwarming achievement on the part of both director and players.
Further advancing both the Pasifika and classical European view of life and death is the concept of an “underworld”, here brought to visual, though not especially dramatic use in the story, being used more effectively in stasis than in movement between. Perhaps the most effective moment confounding this assertion was the staging of the Furies at the beginning of Act Two hanging upside down from an elevated level like predatory bats before realigning themselves firmly on the floor of Hades itself to challenge Orpheus’s presence. These were Neil Ieremia’s own dance group Black Grace, dancers who have already made an impact with both traditional and contemporary presentations, and here they excelled as much with their aggressively baleful aspect as the Furies as with their contrastingly lyrical dance depictions of hero and heroine as a couple and what seemed like stylised re-enactments of Orfeo’s attempt to lead Eurydice out of Hades and back to life.
Interestingly, this production styled itself in its title as Orpheus alone, but with a parenthesised “m” suggesting both the power and influence of sleep (“Morpheus”) over the title character, while also playing down the role of Eurydice almost to the point of being a dream-like figure who, having already died before the story’s beginning lived only in Orpheus’s imagination. Neil Ieremia advances the view that, with Eurydice’s loss, Orpheus is now without his “feminine” side, namely his “compassion, empathy and sensitivity”. Still, we couldn’t help but respond to what happens between then during the course of the story as a kind of lovers’ tragedy, as in the Gluck original of 1862, even if the presentation’s final scene has Orpheus and Eurydice parted once again, with the hero up the stairs in isolation while Eurydice’s body lay inert on the level below…….one is reminded, amid the tragedy, of a phrase such as “did we dream you or did you dream us?” underlying the feeling of isolation and bewilderment of human loss……
The voices of the principals uncannily reflected their situations both during and at the conclusion of the opera – Samson Setu’s rich, golden tones beautifully filled out Orpheus’s fully-committed anguish and grief at the opera’s beginning, strengthening his tones with resolve when confronting the Furies, and melting with tenderness at the thought of seeing his Eurydice once again. However, neither his voice nor his body language “caught” for me the ambiguities of his despair at firstly having to “give in” to Eurydice’s pleas that he look at her at the climax of their flight from the Underworld, before helplessly watching her die. As Eurydice Deborah Wai Kapohe similarly charmed us with heartfelt and delicate sounds at first but couldn’t then summon the vocal heft to “galvanise” my sensibilities with her despairing cries as her end approached. Of the three principal singers the most flexible and responsive to both text and situation was Madison Nonoa as Amor, at once girlish and worldly, pink-puffer jacketed and denin-jean shorted to boot, as if she’d just drifted in from Courtenay Place here in Wellington, her laid-back humour a perfect foil for the seriousness of the other two characters.
Composer Gareth Farr responded to the challenge of “reinventing” Gluck’s orchestration of the work with Pasifika-like elements and gesturings, bringing into play an amalgam of brass and woodwind mixed with marimba, and underpinning the soundscape with a string-quartet like continuo for the action’s unfolding, along with a guitar (played by Gunther Herbig) as Orpheus’s lyre idea, all of which sounded “similar yet different” to the 18th-century original. Conductor Marc Taddei’s robustly controlled trajectories kept the action moving, getting playing from the Orchestra Wellington musicians that was spot-on in terms of accuracy, ensemble and atmosphere. Tracy Lord Grant’s stunning designs, Jacqueline Coats’s able directorial assistance and JAX messenger’s lighting all played their part in evoking in the Wellington Opera House’s atmospheric precincts this resonantly Antipodean realisation of the age-old darkness-and-light story of love and loss.