Opera Australia: Orpheus in the Underworld review

Superbly talented performers, gloriously melodious music and wittily updated lyrics combine to create a frothy, sit-back-and-enjoy confection.

Opera Australia Orpheus Rachelle Durkin, Andrew Brunsdon


Using sets and costumes from 2003 staging, conceived by Ignatius Jones, this remounted production benefits from they wily wit of wordsmiths Jonathan Biggins and Phillip Scott. The opening pastoral setting tweaked to allow swipes at local council, the story progresses through heaven and hell, all the while poking fun at double standards, hedonism and our endless fascination with media-fueled scandals.


Public Opinion, a straight-talking redhead with no interest in the arts, charges onto the scene to drive the plot, forcing Orpheus to protect his public image by heading to the underworld to reclaim his wife Eurydice. Seeking help first on Mount Olympus, Orpheus finds himself accompanied to Hades by the tribe of Gods, all seeking satisfaction and pleasure beyond ambrosia and eternal paradise.

Opera Australia Orpheus in the Underworld


Biggins and Scott’s text is a chief pleasure here, with Biggins also displaying sure-handed comic flair as director. The plentiful jokes, skewering local government and all manner of current affairs, land successfully throughout, even if the surtitles occasionally give away the gags just before they are sung. The overall length is trimmed to a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes (including interval), which is no mean feat for a four-act operetta. The structure of the show includes a large number of solos that do not progress the plot, but most are so charming and well sung that this is not a problem. The addition of a song featuring three cross-dressing judges is the only questionable choice, and the act one chorus by Orpheus’ young violin students was missed by this reviewer.


Conductor Andrew Greene, festively attired to suit the spirit of the show, inspires the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra to a lush and nimble rendition of the delightful score.


Mark Thompson’s designs are a visual feast, with the costumes edging out the settings in terms of overall aesthetic appeal. Featured set pieces, such as Mercury’s bike and Eurydice’s bubble bath, display a very witty visual touch. Extensive pyrotechnics provide lashings of theatrical magic.

Opera Australia Orpheus Mitchell Butel, Rachelle Durkin


The usually reliable John Rayment has, in this case, produced a dim and uninspiring lighting design. Choreography, by Amber Hobson, is similarly lackluster, save for the pure, dazzling showmanship of Todd McKenney.


Luxury casting abounds throughout the leading players. Suzanne Johnston is in excellent voice as Public Opinion, adding just the right amount of knowing twinkle to the pious, self righteous role. Star soprano Rachelle Durkin makes for an exquisite Eurydice, singing the role in full voice despite the musical comedy style adopted overall by the production. Durkin slinks about looking very attractive indeed, also revealing a delicious flair for comedy.


McKenney lights up the stage as Pluto, his enjoyment of the devilish role quite infectious. Mitchell Butel delivers yet another inspired comic creation as the rotting zombie John Styx, outfitted in a costume that has to be seen to be believed.

Opera Australia Orpheus Mitchell Butel


Christopher Hillier proves an excellent patriarch, and has a ball showing the lively sparkle behind the white hair of Jupiter. Andrew Brunsdon gives a solid performance as Orpheus, although his portrayal of the put-upon Orpheus is somewhat sabotaged by the flashy, over-the-top costume and wig. Stephen Smith is an energetic Mercury, showing command of the full stage area in his entertaining number.


Strong support continues right through the family of Gods, including Sian Pendry as the sultry Venus, Katherine Wiles as the cheeky Cupid, Jane Ede as the delightful Diana, and Tom Hamilton providing the booming bass of Mars.


Unfortunately not scheduled for Melbourne this year, Sydneysiders are sure to find Orpheus in the Underworld a most pleasant diversion.

Opera Australia Orpheus Todd McKenney, Mitchell Butel

Orpheus in the Underworld continues at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 27 March 2013.

Photos: Lisa Tomasetti

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