Il Ritorno (Circa)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre
September 9 – 12
The epic “Il Ritorno”, commissioned by the Brisbane Festival, for world premiere ahead of a world tour represents a moving fusion of circus and Baroque opera, created by the Artistic Director of award-winning Brisbane circus company Circa, Yaron Lifschitz, in collaboration with composer Quincy Grant, to retell Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th century “Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria” (The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland), one of the first modern operas. Combining it with folk songs and new compositions layered with themes arising from accounts of post WWII European displacement and survivors’ long journeys home from Auschwitz, makes for a unique and thoroughly engaging aesthetic event to which audiences were silenced in awed appreciation, leaning forward in their seats in absolute absorption.
As Lifschitz himself noted before its opening night performance, its existence is testament to the Brisbane Festival’s investment in works that challenge rather than confirm. And it is this truth that makes it such an enigmatic experience, for to attempt to categorise it perhaps does the work an injustice; this is a show that simply needs to be seen to have its beauty be fully appreciated.
It begins with Circa ensemble members (Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Nicole Faubert, Gerramy Marsden, Brittannie Portelli and Duncan West) being dragged and thrown around a grey pallet stage of muted tones. For a while it is just the physical presence of separate bodies in the space but as they cluster together, the lighting warms and a narrator of sorts enters to share snippets of the journey of Greek hero Ulysses, guiding the audience from the shores of Ithaca to the arrival of vain suitors who are meanwhile set to win his wife Penelope’s heart.
Circa is renowned for pushing artistic boundaries and creating powerful works of circus artistry and their involvement in “Il Ritorno” is inspired. The movement of the ensemble is strong but not aggressive in unity and illustration of the longing that is central to the work. Their performances provide many memorable moments in their stripped-back acrobatics, beyond just the strength of their aerial work, which has audience members clasping hands together in anticipation of applause that although deserved, may distract. Of note is the use of silhouette during ground rope work and the visual imagery created in the interesting shapes of performers virtually thrown against backdrops from which their bodies hang in linger, sprayed against the wall. Although often tranquil, the momentum barely falters beyond a routine on stilted hand stand platform that continues on a little long. However, even this is accompanied by such beautiful musical accompaniment from musicians Tim Byrne and Catherine Stirling, that it is easily forgiven.
Indeed, “Il Ritorno” shows how opera and acrobatics go so well together, each affording the audience opportunity to become encompassed by the pure emotion generated by both serene and turbulent moments that are reflected in music as much as moment as the show’s vocalists (Alicia Cush, Bethan Ellsmore, Matthew Hirst and Mattias Lower) perform powerful Italian opera alongside heartfelt Yiddish and German folksongs. This is a magnificent artistic experience that serves as refined alternative to the exuberance of the festival’s Arcadia shows. Far from being inaccessible, however, it serves to show that classic art forms do not only have to occur from within the museum cabinet of culture.