It's quite a contradiction when you call a work Passion and then spend 90 minutes resisting all emotions. Lei and Lui (She and He), the protagonists, accompanied by a chorus of six Others and an orchestra of 17, do occasionally touch as they manoeuvre judiciously across a stage crowded with shards of glass (or ice?), but they only do it dispassionately. Indeed, the end sees them at their closest. But She is holding his singing head in a blackness that could only be a reflection of the numbness in Samuel Beckett's mouth-play, Not I.

Wiard Witholt and Elise Caluwaerts © Jamie Williams
Wiard Witholt and Elise Caluwaerts
© Jamie Williams

Such an ending was all the more anomalous as Passion is officially described as “an abstracted take on the Orpheus myth”. And the Orpheus myth ends with the world's first musical maestro parted forever from his Eurydice – and possibly torn apart by Bacchanalian women driven mad by his eternal singing of dirges for this lost love. Pretty passionate!

But then we may be dealing with a much more ordinary She and He – a couple simply coming to the end of a relationship. Dusapin does not want us to be certain of anything going by his own libretto – sung in Italian, incidentally, in tribute to the language of Monteverdi's original opera on the subject. A harpsichord, too is one of his prescribed instruments – presumably for the same reason. It plays several hesitant solos, sounding nothing like Monteverdi.

In previous productions, I believe, no surtitles have translated the text for the audience. It was a mistake to do so in Sydney – for what is an extraordinarily elusive text, possibly even nonsense, became much too important in elucidating meaning from the opera. Maybe, just maybe, that meaning lay only in the music?

How else can one reconcile a line like, “I no longer hear what your voice sounds like” with the essential norms of an opera? But the soulful cello which follows the repetition of that line might well give us a deep feeling of the key moment when Orpheus turned his head and Eurydice re-died, or when He's controlling tendencies, suggested several times through the use of words like “Obey me” and “Listen to me”, were finally resisted by a resurgent She.

Earlier, synthesised electronics – resisted by Dusapin in much of his earlier writing – filled the hall while She and He slept – apart. Was this simply to give soloists Elise Caluwaerts and Wiard Witholt – both imported from Holland along with this Pierre Audi production – a rest from their demanding parts? Or to conjure the depths of the Underworld, otherwise unreferenced? If the latter, I failed to feel the Underworld in the charming instrumental passage that followed – the concerted plucking of harp, harpsichord and strings. But then the text constantly juxtaposed statement followed by question, so why shouldn't the music?

So, what clues were there of Orphean myth? The Gods certainly appeared to matter – especially the Sun – though the fact that it was Orpheus' father Apollo wasn't mentioned. And there was one reference to the serpent sent by gods jealous of Orpheus and Eurydice's marital bliss (and/or his musical talents), which caused her death. But the surprise appearance of an oud towards the end didn't really have the music to persuade me that we were transported to an Eastern Mediterranean world of mythic antiquity.

Apart from the oud, performances by singers and instrumentalists couldn't be faulted, with Audi fully justified in the promotional claim for his soloists that, “The production needs to involve the singers in portraying an inner dimension, and usually that is done not just with the voice but the whole body.” But Pascal Dusapin is not a familiar name in Australia – though Roger Woodward's pioneering Spring Festivals in the 90s undoubtedly introduced him to the faithful few who then attended. So it was courageous, even in the final year of Director Lieven Bertels' tenure at the Sydney Festival, to drop this equivocal work in from the heavens of contemporary Europe to challenge local audiences.

Fortunately, the five year old Sydney Chamber Opera has been working up to something of this scale with a series of local and international contemporary works. Hopefully that was enough to bring its disciples bravely with it.