Impassioned Drama in Adelaide’s Subterranean Realm

Venturing into Adelaide’s secret tunnels, Graham Strahle caught a mini-opera performance that was truly underground.

Threading their way beneath the centre of Adelaide are ‘secret tunnels’ that connect the former Treasury Building, Post Office and Torrens Building around Victoria Square. Dating back to early settlement days, they were used to hold great stockpiles of gold that diggers brought back from Victoria’s Goldfields to be smelted into coinage. Reputedly there were almost 13 tonnes of the yellow metal hoarded down there in 1852–53.

Rediscovering this lost world of Adelaide is as easy as booking into a National Trust tour that sets off from the plush foyer of the Adina Hotel, the now converted Treasury Building. From there it’s a surprisingly short amble downstairs into a well-manicured redbrick passageway that leads to three small cellar-like vaults, each mustier than the previous. Other parts of the Treasury Tunnels have long been sealed off or filled in, which is disappointing, but this surviving restored portion is a magical place, and descending into this quaint piece of history really gives one the illusion of discovering the city’s colonial past for the first time.

Only 20 or so people can squeeze in, but that hasn’t prevented a string of quirkier, intimate shows from being staged down there recently.

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Interactive approaches such as this cry out for use if the tight confines of these tunnels are to work as a performance venue. So when in its newest show, Various People decided to hold a ‘surprise’ wedding in there, at which audience members were invited to celebrate with glass of champagne in hand, it seemed a really clever idea – and cleverer still when they were led down into the underworld of Greek legend to see what happens to the not-so-lucky couple.

Orpheus Underground is a mini-opera that Various People’s artistic director Cheryl Pickering has created using excerpts from works dating back to the Baroque: some of the earliest known operas by Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi through to Telemann, Gluck, Pergolesi and even Vaughan Williams. Spliced in between is narrated verse on the theme of Orpheus by the early modernist Bohemian poet Rainer Rilke and contemporary Scottish writer Carol Ann Duffy. So while in essence a pasticcio, it feels rather more creative than this.

In its execution, Orpheus Underground almost measures up to the cleverness of its ideas. The strengths consists of its strong visual drama, this sense of the audience being drawn into the story almost as participants, fabulous costumes (by Faith Gerhard), and some outstanding singing from a cast of five.

Distilled quite effectively into three short scenes, the show’s opening is the best. On emerging from the first leg of the tunnel, the small audience is delighted to be immediately greeted as wedding guests in the light-filled first chamber. The cast hands around champagne, let fly in celebratory high-spirited repartee, and sang joyously.

One is particularly struck by how wonderfully skilled three of the singers are in early Baroque vocal technique: soprano Kate MacFarlane first as one of the attendants, and then the couple themselves, comprising baritone David Hidden (Orpheus) and soprano Bethany Hill (Eurydice). Exotic strains of archlute, played by Melbourne’s Andrew Byrne add lovely colourful touches too.

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The mood suddenly transforms when the Master of Ceremonies, played by David Cox, utters gloomy portents from Rilke: “The world changes quite like the moving shapes of clouds, the sufferings have not been understood.” Here the storyline feels abruptly broken, as the production doesn’t make quite clear that at this point a snakebite costs Eurydice her life, prompting Orpheus to venture into the underworld to rescue her. Nevertheless, this elicits some of the show’s most impassioned singing, first from MacFarlane in Peri’s ‘Lassa! Che di spavento’, and then Hidden in Telemann’s darkly funereal ‘Ach Tod’ from his opera Orpheus.

On being ushered into a narrower second chamber, the audience members are treated to yet more glorious singing from the stricken Orpheus. Hidden’s voice flares magnificently in this constricted space. Soprano Cassandra Humble and Cox, now playing a grim-faced watchman at the gates of Hades, offer good vocal performances, but not at the same level.
The final drama plays out in a dank, musty chamber at the end of the tunnel. Eurydice lies sprawled on the ground and a trio of Bacchantes taunt Orpheus, huddled in a corner, with a barrage of insults. Their racy girl-chat feels out of keeping with the rest of the show, but nevertheless provides amusement.

Despite a few unanswered questions, Orpheus Underground overflowed with creativity. Theatrically vivid and studded with some exceptional singing, it seems too good not to achieve what the protagonists failed to do: live a second life.

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