Orpheus: The Forest Collective review (Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne)

Tonight is a bit of a first for me, an opera and ballet in one piece performed as part of the Midsumma Festival. Composer Evan Lawson’s aim is to review the Orpheus myth by emphasising the relationship between Orpheus and his lover Calais, in contrast to the usual story that revolves around the tragic love tale between Orpheus and Eurydice.

The set up is in the round; a few rows of chairs on the convent’s timber floor, barriers between us and the dancers created by small streams of sand laid out on tissue paper. The musicians are at one end, a small bar at the other. It’s a big room and you get the feeling of nuns of days long gone silently eating and praying at dinner. At various times footsteps and clomps from the timber ceiling/floor upstairs rooms echo through the performance, adding their ghostly presence.

It’s quite a large crew performing. The three lead roles are duplicated – a singer and a dancer for each, and there is a 10-piece musical ensemble as well, with most of the wind players using multiple instruments. There are three elements to this performance – the music, singing and dance.

Composer/conductor Lawson keeps a firm grip on his ensemble. While his note in the program talks a lot about the melodies he has borrowed from Greek folk or other sources, to my ears it sounds like a performance that is focused on texture more than melody.

The music is divided into six section. There are times that I am reminded of Trevor Horn’s work with the Art of Noise in the 1980s with repetition (especially from scraps of sentences from the singers) and seemingly incongruous sounds mashed together in an effect that rises above itself. At other times it’s like a film soundtrack, providing a nest of sound in which the vocals and movements nest without necessarily closely relating to each other. 

Musical highlights included the great percussive work from Alexander Clayton – he beat and caressed that large bass drum coaxing it from a whisper to thunder and back again, unsettling and dictating the mood; Ian Crossfield’s double bass work, with again disquieting vibrato at times and depth at others, sounds that were mirrored and amplified by the trombone/sackbut of Trea Hindley. Samantha Ramirez’s harp was sparkling; plucked, bowed and fondled to produce a spectrum of flavours and textures, piano-like one minute, deep bowed bass the next and a rinky-tink glock a few bars later.

On to the voices: Kate Bright (Eurydice) was particularly good. Her voice is strong and clear and incisive, whether quietly lamenting or harmonising, breathy or wailing with power. Raymond Khong (Orpheus) contrasted her power with silky smoothness. Joseph Ewart as Calais was similarly low-key and had a much smaller role. 

I really enjoyed the operatic treatment of the material with one caveat. I don’t believe that they had enough material to use, which meant that they became repetitive. I know that is purposeful and at times it did create a dreamy mood but it really felt like a lost opportunity to tell more of the story. I felt like I had missed many of the points Lawson wanted to make, until I read the program notes he provided.

The ballet was the less engaging part of the evening. I liked the way that the pairing of Orpheus/Calais reflected Lawson’s aims neatly by contrasting them with traditional male/female romantic ballet tropes. At other times it felt that it went too quickly from a particular mood (of say, love or longing) to the overwrought, and to some extent each section played out a similar course, mirrored of course by the music’s tone. All three dancers were alternately fluid and sprung, with Luke Fryer’s Calais perhaps having a more passionate edge. Piaera Lauritz as Eurydice was intriguing and Ashley Dougan’s Orpheus was solid as the actor around whom the others mainly revolved.

As a different means of experiencing a standard myth, Orpheus was entertaining. There was always something happening – so that your attention was constantly flittering about without feeling busy. Some of the musical and operatic highs were chilling and compelling, with the pairing of opera and ballet complementing each other surprisingly well without too much artifice or clunkiness.

Orpheus is on as part of the Midsumma Festival until Sunday,  February 3

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