SOMERVILLE — One of the impressive things about “Odysseo’’ — and there are quite a few — is how confident the show is in its own brand of magic.
This is not one of those spectacles that never lets the audience breathe, that pummels you into submission with a relentless, frenetic onslaught of sights, sounds, and stimuli. Though it contains its share of bombast and certainly can’t be called understated, “Odysseo’’ makes room for periods of relative stillness. In those moments, we can savor the visual splendor of horses in stately procession, or criss-crossing a sandy hillside, or making slow, graceful pirouettes, or simply standing in collective profile, one horse’s muzzle resting on the back of another.
To be sure, there are plenty of times in “Odysseo’’ when those horses are at full gallop, sometimes with a rider hanging off the side or facing backward or even, in one amazing sequence, traversing the horse’s underside. These daredevil stunts may simultaneously enthrall you and make you cringe. (One rider took a spill on opening night, but fortunately her horse was not moving at top speed at the time. She got up and walked offstage — dripping, because her fall occurred after the stage had been flooded to simulate a lake).
The $35 million “Odysseo’’ is making its New England premiere under a 125-foot-high big top (press materials boast that it is “the world’s largest touring big top’’), on a stage that is nearly 18,000 square feet large. A total of 63 horses, of 11 different breeds, appear in the show, along with 47 human performers, including musicians.
Those are just numbers unless the creators and performers of “Odysseo’’ possess an artistry commensurate with that kind of scale. They do. What they’ve devised is a transporting spectacle that imaginatively and elegantly fuses highly stylized equestrian arts with Cirque du Soleil-style atmospherics, acrobatics and aerial stunts.
Directed by Wayne Fowkes, with equestrian direction and choreography by Benjamin Aillaud, “Odysseo’’ is a production of Montreal-based Cavalia. The show is the brainchild of Normand Latourelle, Cavalia’s 57-year-old founder and artistic director (who was one of the early forces behind Cirque du Soleil).
The Boston area has been visited by numerous contemporary circuses in recent years, from the Cirque du Soleil juggernaut to smaller companies like Les 7 Doigts de la Main and Cirque Eloize. It turns out that making horses the centerpiece adds a satisfying new dimension. There’s no narration; the musicians help set the mood, sustaining a dreamlike aura throughout the show while horses, humans, and technology combine to create one ravishing image after another. Utilizing an enormous backdrop, 18 video projectors create surrounding landscapes that range from the buttes of Monument Valley to an African savannah to Easter Island, complete with those giant stone heads.
The humans hold their own amid the succession of imposing environments. Performers whirl in circles on aerial hoops while twisting themselves into pretzel shapes, or enfold their bodies within aerial silks and proceed to spin horizontally, their white garments billowing. A carousel containing wooden horses descends from the ceiling and begins to rotate while acrobats splay themselves at right angles on the metal poles.
Even the performers who remain close to the ground manage to find ways to dazzle, forming a human pyramid or turning somersaults and backflips. Several acrobats achieve extra velocity and liftoff by performing on urban stilts.
But “Odysseo’’ rides on horsepower, whether the equine stars are hurtling across the stage at blinding speeds, leaping over low obstacles, or even doing something as mundane as rolling in the sand. Their beauty is the real draw.
Perfection can be boring, though, so it was actually gratifying to see one of the horses stray off script on opening night. Who knows, maybe it was a display of star temperament. In any case, he balked at joining the others as they cantered in a circle in close-order formation. A female performer had to cajole him back into the ranks. He eventually complied, but he didn’t look terribly happy about it.