ASB Waterfront Theatre, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

06/09/2023 - 10/09/2023

Opera House, Wellington

20/09/2023 - 23/09/2023

Production Details

COMPOSER: Chistoph Gluck
CONDUCTOR: Marc Taddei
Orchestral Score reconceived by Gareth Farr for a 10 piece modern chamber ensemble

A co-produciton by NZ Opera and Black Grace

From Aotearoa New Zealand’s unique place in Moana Oceania, New Zealand Opera and internationally acclaimed Pacific contemporary dance company Black Grace present a reimagining of Christoph Gluck’s eighteenth-century masterpiece Orpheus and Eurydice, led by director and choreographer Neil Ieremia (ONZM).

Blending rich Pasifika storytelling with the themes of Greek tragedy, (m)Orpheus tells a story of a man willing to risk everything for love but unable to find love in himself. Set in a dislocated future, where Pacific ceremony and traditions are still honoured, Orpheus struggles to come to terms with the loss of his wife. The gods agree to let Orpheus rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, but there is a catch. To be together again, he must lead her out without turning to look back at her, or she will be lost from him forever.

ASB Waterfront Theatre Auckland 6 – 10 September, various times
The Opera House, Wellington 20 – 23 September, 7.30pm
Tickets $25 – $147.50
Tickets www.nzopera.co.nz

ORPHEUS: Samson Setu
EURYDICE: Deborah Wai Kapohe
AMOR: Madison Nonoa
BLACK GRACE DANCERS: Demi – Jo Manalo, Rodney Tyrell, Fuaao Tutulu Faith Schuster, Sione Fataua, Vincent Farane, Ben Saveasoi, Paula Kahu, Chas Mamea (understudy)
SOPRANOS: Te Ohorere Williams, Emeline Mafi
MEZZOS: Lemauseafa Sio Lolesio, Stella Alofa
TENORS: Jordan Fonoti-Fuimaono, Taylor Wallbank
BASSES: Alfred Fonoti- Fuimaono, Faamanu Fonoti-Fuimaono

With Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (Auckland)
and Orchestra Wellington (Wellington)

COMPOSER: Chistoph Gluck
CONDUCTOR: Marc Taddei
DESIGNER: Tracy Grant Lord

Orchestral Score reconceived by Gareth Farr for a 10 piece modern chamber ensemble

Contemporary dance , Dance-theatre , Music , Opera , Pasifika contemporary dance , Dance ,

2 hours

An extraordinary fusion of opera, dance and music

Review by Tania Kopytko 22nd Sep 2023

Let’s start at the end – the audience erupts into sustained cheers, shrieks, clapping and stamping, which tells us the response to this innovative work. The good-sized creative team have worked and collaborated well to bring an extraordinary integrated fusion work. The team comprises of Neil Ieremia, Director/Choreographer; Marc Taddei, Conductor; Tracy Grant Lloyd, Production Designer; JAX Messenger, Lighting Designer, and with reorchestration by Gareth Farr. The opera text was translated into English and Samoan. 

The creative team creates a performance which creatively fuses languages (English and Samoan), movement forms (contemporary, Samoan and theatrical), and singer and dancer chorus work. The music is reorchestrated adding new more contemporary sounds and instruments. The subtlety lit set is contemporary, but also adorned with fine woven mat shapes and design with a Samoan feel. The beginning and the end of the work is performed in Samoan and the middle sections in English. The costumes are simple and effective and establish us in a Pasifika world. 

The original 1762 Gluck opera was sung in Italian and was of an opera genre that had choruses and dancing. Over the years it has been performed more traditionally where the chorus is more static and voice takes precedence. At other times, like the English National Opera, contemporary dance has blasted into the music/dance sections. Neil Ieremia’s very innovative rearranging takes it into a new dimension because of the integration of Samoan elements with the song and movement and the integration of contemporary dance with opera chorus theatricality. 

Here the chorus moves delicately and rhythmically, sometimes using the same movements as the dancers. Other times, the Black Grace dancers amplify the spacing and shapes of the chorus and staging, with their more physical attack, or counterpoint of timing or levels, creating contrast to the chorus. This is beautifully woven together in Act II when Orpheus goes down to the underworld. It is highlighted in the delicate Siva dance movements which give beauty and restrained joy to the sweet chorus singing in the realm of Elysium, later in Act II.  In general, I found all the dance sequences link, weave and flow through the work, giving it a greater and multidimensional strength and expression. 

Sometimes the dance amplifies the story, such as the beautiful duet by Black Grace dancers, Fuaao Tutulu Faith Schuster and Rodney Tyrell, reminding us that Orpheus must not look at Eurydice. It expresses physically what Orpheus will later sing – the anguish and desire of the position they are put in, while he tries to lead Eurydice back from the underworld. The dance duet is beautifully choreographed and portrayed. The sung story is then equally subtly portrayed by the lead singers Samson Netu (Orpheus) and Deborah Wai Kapohe (Eurydice). Here the set comes to the fore with beautiful moving panels allowing the singers to portray their duets and solos while not having to look at each other, as the panels move and they move between the panels.

There are very stylish humorous elements. The garage upstairs with the car in Act I becomes two dimensional in Act II, where the set reveals the car’s back end reaching down into the underworld below. The goddess of love, Amor, is a real pop Diva in a bright pink puffer jacket, shorts and boots, who revels in her powers of manipulation and trickery.  Madison Nonoa plays her with relish and has a delightful voice.  I am more a dance and theatre critic, but my experience of the singing is that it is clear, strong, sweet and harmonious. All singers have clear diction and a clarity of expression, so that I had little need to refer to the surtitles provided. The Black Grace dancers perform beautifully throughout.

The cast of eleven singers from NZ Opera and seven Black Grace dancers comprises of performers with vast performance experience. They are of broad and varying Māori iwi and Pasifika heritage – Samoan, Niuean, Tongan. All this information is well presented in the programme.  

The end of the opera has an interesting resolution which is not clear to me. The beautiful final Siva style ensemble work offers an affirmation of love and presents the ensemble to the audience as one gracious, glorious bow or révérence. This ignites the audience in cheering and clapping. Then the music becomes strangely distant and distorted, perhaps like music drifting over the night air at the end of a garage-based party, as Orpheus now sits alone in his garage. Eurydice lies dead below. The programme notes tell me that it is all a dream. But I am unclear if the outcome is that Eurydice is dead and it was all a hope or dream that she was alive, but now this Orpheus must still face his nightmare, or perhaps that the whole thing never happened.  

Congratulations to you all for such a fine performance. I am sure the rest of the country and the world would like to see this.


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Five-point star—visionary and innovative 

Review by Jennifer Shennan 21st Sep 2023

This extraordinary production, (m)Orpheus, by New Zealand Opera & Black Grace, is billed as a re-imagining of Christoph Gluck’s 18th century opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. The program note calls it a dance-opera collision—which it is, but it’s also a great deal more than that.

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Blessed with an abundance of treasures and constant, almost restless energy

Review by Tim Stevenson 21st Sep 2023

(m)Morpheus is an extraordinary artistic event – a triumph of individual artistry, collective effort and unifying vision, integrating traditional forms and modern themes to tell a story with the power to capture the hearts and imaginations of its audience.

Its foundation is Gluck’s ever-popular classic opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, itself a version of a well-known Greek myth. To recap: Orpheus is a musician and poet whose wife Eurydice dies untimely of snakebite. Through the beauty of his music and the sadness of his laments, Orpheus persuades the guardians of the underworld to let him take Eurydice back to earth. Permission is given on the condition that he should walk in front of her and not look back until they reach the upper world. Orpheus fails to meet these conditions. Eurydice returns to the realms of the dead, this time for ever.

According to the original Greek myth, Orpheus now returns to the upper world, inconsolable. Orpheus and Eurydice has a distinctly more upbeat ending. When Eurydice returns to the realm of the dead a second time, Orpheus chooses to kill himself rather than be parted from her again. However, Amor, spirit of love, intervenes. Orpheus has proven the strength of his love; she will reward him by allowing the couple to return to earth together.

Director/choreographer Neil Ieremia’s reimagining of Gluck’s opera takes us back into less optimistic territory. In his version, Orpheus is a young man who’s lost the feminine side of himself, as represented by Eurydice. For Ieremia, Orpheus could be any young man growing up in Aotearoa where, in his words, “qualities associated with femininity such as compassion, empathy and sensitivity fall victim in the struggle for cultural and societal acceptance.”

The production conveys this view of Orpheus through action and setting rather than the libretto, which remains faithful to the original. This creates interesting cross-currents for the audience, depending on whether you’re more influenced by the libretto posted up on the screen, the music or the physical vocabulary employed by the dancers. There’s a strong suggestion that the ending, for Orpheus anyway, is not a happy one.

Whatever you think of Ieremia’s interpretation, the benefits it brings to the current production are substantial. The opportunity to tell his version of the Orpheus story helped to bring Ieremia’s formidable artistic talents on board. His reading can be thanked for giving us the production’s gritty urban setting and grounding in Island culture. Together, these define the tone and direction of the work.

Of course, reaching decisions about version, tone and direction is only part of the story. Translating them into actual performance on stage is a whole other matter, and this too is where we see the master, together with his super-talented cast and crew, at work.

A characteristic of this performance is its constant, almost restless energy. Singers and dancers, stage machinery, the mix of light and shade, all seem to be in a constant state of purposeful movement – except for those moments when the action stills to focus on some peak of action or emotion. It’s jaw-dropping to contemplate the creative vision and organising power (and rehearsal time) involved in bringing all these elements together and making them work seamlessly – which they do.

Having credited Ieremia, credit is also due to the creative team – Production Designer Tracy Grant Lord, Lighting Designer JAX Messenger, Assistant Director Jacqueline Coats, Co-Lighting Designer Brian Fairbrother, Gareth Farr for reorchestration – and the production team, regrettably too numerous to name individually.

In a production that’s blessed with an abundance of treasures, the strength of the singing stands out. Samson Setu gives a powerful, sustained performance as Orpheus; the range, eloquence and richness of his voice and the expressiveness of his acting are a highlight. He’s probably sick of people describing his voice as “honeyed,” but if the hat fits …

Deborah Wai Kapohe as Eurydice reaches heights of lyrical beauty, particularly in her arias and duets. Madison Nonona as Amor carries her part well and brings an extra touch of jaunty attitude to her portrayal.

The contribution of the ensemble singers can’t be understated. Not only do they sing like perfectly rehearsed angels, they dance with verve and perfect coordination. No standing about in the background for this ensemble, they’re centre stage and in the spotlight.

The Black Grace dancers will be the subject of a separate review in Theatreview, but they bring another special strength and dimension to the performance.

Many in the audience will have delighted in the better-known passages such as Orpheus’s aria, ‘What shall I do without Eurydice?’ – and understandably so. For this reviewer, however, favourite moments involve singers, ensemble singers, and ensemble dancers in combination – a stand-out being the beginning of Act Two, when Orpheus confronts the Furies.

A final round of congratulations to the hard-working players from Orchestra Wellington under conductor Mark Taddei, making up with skill and stamina what they lack in numbers.

Both cast and audience take a little while to warm up on the opening night of this short Wellington season, but everyone is all smiles and (the audience anyway) offers rowdy appreciation by the final curtain.


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The final message is put to rest confusingly

Review by Michael Hooper 07th Sep 2023

The unlikely and inexplicable are almost de rigueur for opera.  The Greek myth of Orpheus descending to the Underworld to retrieve his beloved Euridice is a plot line of copious stanzas and libretti, about an oft-fated underground rescue mission. It’s what you do with it that counts, and this production is a brave tilt at a new texture to the tale.  Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck, as he was to become, laid the musical groundwork of Orpheus and Euridice in the 18th Century, but it is Gareth Farr who plants new ideas in it, abetted by the direction and choreography of Black Grace dance company founder Neil Ieremia.

The contemporary Pasifika theme laid upon and woven through this performance will be culturally familiar for Auckland audiences especially. NZ Opera has been on a mission to bend the classics towards less classically-oriented audiences and see this as essential to their, and the medium’s survival in Aotearoa today. The co-production with Black Grace could be expected to touch us and excite our curiosity. There are clues in the reworked title, that the god of sleep and dreams has a role, and that metamorphosis might also happen. But does the concept cohere?

First performed Vienna 1762, the work is of the genre ‘azione teatrale’ – a mythological opera with choruses and dance. If it sounds musically like Mozart, it’s chronologically the other way round – Wolfgang Amadeus sometimes sounds like Christoph Willibald.  (Listen to the hell scene of Don Giovanni, as an example.) If Gluck also sounds a little like Handel, they were contemporaries, even rivals, in London in the mid 1700s.  But, in the words of Phantom of The Opera, “To Hell with Gluck and Handel,” let’s look at this production.

Before the overture, the obvious visual difference is the large marimba to the side of the 11-piece chamber ensemble, with the pairs of brass and woodwind instruments all promising a sound quite different from expectations of an 18th century composition.  It appears Gluck’s reformist intentions are to be realised in the musical essence of the 90-minute production. The composer and his librettist Calzabrigi themselves adapted the Orpheus and Euridice material quite freely, and he wrote, “there is no rule which I have not thought it right to set aside willingly.”  

Re-orchestrator Gareth Farr has taken this as his cue to successfully imagine Pasifika elements into the soundscape. Huw Dann’s trumpet and flugelhorn playing, and Grant Sinclair’s trombone playing cleverly bring a Ratana band savouriness to the mix, and the two marimbists move us towards Island Night on the sands, while, at the core, is the more expected tip-toe tight and elegant string quartet (plus guitar). It’s a creative and enjoyable mix of the exotic and familiar.

The clean, functional two-level set, designed by Tracy Grant Lord, is lit moodily and yet perfectly by JAX Messenger. It is constructed to clarify and signpost the worlds of the living and the dead, as Orpheus traverses the great divide to rescue his wife and soulmate Euridice.

Orpheus was cast as castrato originally, then as counter-tenor or tenor, and is sometimes sung by a mezzo-soprano. The ‘star’ aria is ‘Che faro Senza Euridice?’ (Where are you Euridice?) with its lovely smooth octave runs and very moving lyrics – “I am forever your true lover. In my woe where can I go? Where can I wander with no love? Through darkness groping, nothing hoping from earth or heaven.” The unanswered cry ‘Risponde’ is scored as a whole note/semibreve that then slides down an octave to Middle D (according to the transcription is used).  The Aria is notated as ‘allegretto’, required to be restrained at points, and the most moving performances, which I find come in a higher register, have a smooth legato element. Many recorded singers linger just a little, to give a cliff-edge poise before the dive that carries the poignancy, just as a little residual sweetness can make even a dry wine more unctuous.

The bass-baritone of Samson Setu is accurate but lacks that emotional delivery. Orpheus is, after all, supposed to “soften the implacable rage” of even the powers of Hell, with his lyrical poetry and song.  His “tormented burning desire” requires more physical expression than we see in this stolid husband, who sings with hands cupped in front of him in the operatic old style. It doesn’t really help the communication that he fixes his feet firmly on the floor and his eyes firmly on the back wall of the theatre.  He does bear quite a dramatic weight, on stage for the entire show, and seems to endure it well.

There is also a surprising lack of alacrity in some of the dance numbers from Black Grace. The kindly “blessed and happy” spirits of the underworld, clad in white sheets, sometimes stand and waft like laundry in the breeze, however they do go for a spin when dancing as The Furies, delivering more of the energy we expect of the highly-acclaimed troupe, especially with clap dancing and a vigorous haka.

The chorus of some ten singers exudes power and melody, with some especially strong female singers. Along with the dancers, their graceful use of hand gestures tells a story without words more clearly than even Marcel Marceau.

Overall, I wonder if the journey from Ancient Greece across the Styx to Mangere isn’t a bridge too far? The earliest theatre tradition of the commenting chorus might have stretched to link this great divide, but there were potholes in its energy and drama. More emotionally-committed acting might have provided successful time travel, but this Orpheus, while hinting at heroic, couldn’t carry me along on that journey. The director notes that along with his died-in-the-woods wife, the feminine side of Orpheus has died, and while allowing interpretation, I find that the stoic male we are presented with shows little of “love’s frenzy” of which the libretto speaks.

Madison Nonoa is a marvellously mischievous Amor, stealing the show with her pink puffer coat, blue hair bun, cut-off denim and orange boots from the moment she appears through the windscreen of the shell of a car on the upper level of the set. Her voice seems to gather sweetness at every appearance. Deborah Wai Kapohe has a frustratingly small singing role as Eurydice, only appearing vocally in the final act where she chooses death rather than obedience to her husband. Her lower register is used to weigh her words with subtle irony.

Conductor Marc Taddei undertakes the cross-cultural journey comfortably, seated at the podium (there is no pit, as such). The dark walls of the Waterfront Theatre chamber add intimacy and hygge to an often beautiful and emotional score that only partly fills its promise. The first and last choruses are sung in Samoan which serves to highlight that English is not really the prettiest sung language option. The surtitles are clear and good, so why did the director not just go for the best-sounding language right through, whether it be the original Italian, the subsequent French or indeed Samoan?

The final message that the god of love has prevailed and that “jealousy devours, but faith restores” is put to rest confusingly as Orpheus, after his reunification with his Euridice, appears to abandon her to Hades, harking back to the original sad ending of the Viennese libretto. It’s as if the director couldn’t decide between happy ending or tragedy, so gave us both by appending the message hinted in the title, that, in the end, it was all just a dream.


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