Rhinegold Photo credit: Clive Barda
Emma Rice's production of Orpheus in the Underworld

Robert Thicknesse

Review: Orpheus at ENO

12:11, 4th December 2019

Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck); Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach); Orphée (Glass); The Mask of Orpheus (Birtwistle) 

English National Opera

Review by Robert Thicknesse


House of the dead

ENO has certainly gone to hell under the artistic directorship of Daniel Kramer, though I guess it will eventually stagger back, à la Orpheus. Though the board has made its first sane appointment for decades in appointing Annilese Miskimmon to succeed him, her job of resurrecting the moribund house has hardly been eased by this fatuous interlude.

And yet this season of four Orpheus-based operas worked in parts, and was not as grim as generally reported. There was nothing wrong (except callow pretentiousness) with the idea, and it was kind to roll out the Birtwistle jamboree for the old dude’s 85th birthday treat – because it sure as heck won’t ever be performed again when he’s gone.

Sarah Tynan and a dancer from Company Wayne McGregor in Orfeo ed Euridice (Photo credit: Donald Cooper)

The eccentric choice of curtain-raiser was Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, performed in its Berlioz mish-mash edition. CEO Stuart Murphy’s marketing policy is based on sucking up to a variety of low-wattage glitzies, who were given the red carpet treatment on first night; God only knows what they made of this dignified piece, primed as they no doubt were for some cretinous camp extravaganza. As (sadly) usual, direction was handed to a choreographer (Wayne McGregor), resulting in a fall between all possible stools: the story was badly told, the singers and dancers looked like they were from different planets, and even the choreographer’s day-job talents deserted him.

The characters were throughout referred to in Italian, for reasons of lazy translation, an irritant that persisted through three of these operas. McGregor had been told by some idiot that a director needs a konzept, and brilliantly came up with the idea that Orpheus whacks Eurydice on her wedding day with a lethal injection. There was a vague doubling of the couple with dancers, sloppily applied. For the rest, some flashing lights and a lot of generic, not very to-the-point dancing (to fill the gaps that Gluck had unaccountably left in the action) constituted the staging. Alice Coote as Orpheus, giving everything, touchingly heart-on-sleeve, was not the ideal physical performer for this set-up, horribly earthbound amid her entourage of willowy, limber dancers, however heartfelt her singing.

Musically it was very solid, with stunning moments. Harry Bicket took a few minutes to get the violins playing the right notes at the right time but soon the orchestra settled down into a lovely soft-grained performance, with the Blessed Spirits played, and danced, with delicate, ethereal beauty. Sarah Tynan (Eurydice) and Soraya Mafi as Cupid were excellent. It would, actually, have made a great concert.


No laughing matter

Despite a critical shellacking, Emma Rice’s version of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld was… well, notable. Non-trad, for sure, and ENO again alienated the thousands who rather wished to see the jolly operetta advertised. But, that aside, it seems to me OK to consider whether there might be another side to this piece beyond ooh-la-la and how’s-yer-father – and it felt distinctly Offenbachian, full of that melancholy Hoffmann strain.

Short on laughs: Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (Photo credit: Clive Barda)

Now, Rice doesn’t like opera (‘a dreadful sound – it just doesn’t sound like the human voice’), and clearly hates what Offenbach and Co actually wrote. And turning Eurydice from a confident sexual being into trafficked goods says plenty about the weird, neo-Victorian victim-cult of modern feminism. But once you’d shifted your mental apparatus to think of her as a sister to poor Semele, used and discarded by the gods, interesting vistas began to take shape. And though the wholehearted (and literately done) rewriting left a few motivation problems unaddressed, the attempt to make Eurydice and Orpheus into sentient people did actually work.

Thanks to the voices, of course: Mary Bevan and Ed Lyon have the vocal chops to dignify any role. Rice took a lot of flak for giving them a baby and then killing it off, but she needed to move fast to set her idea running, and that early petard was at least efficient; it also ensured, less helpfully, that nobody laughed for the next hour. With low levels of energy – just not enough going on, most of the time, and a tooth-grinding stagecraft deficit among the singers – this was a slow-burn evening.

But there was payoff in the last act – and even a joke, Jupiter’s bluebottle act prompting a funny vibrator jape. Eurydice, now a slave in a Soho peep-show, fended off the sad advances of another human wreck, John Styx, brilliantly played by Alan Oke, before giving us a galop scene of bracingly Brechtian levels of disgust at the hell created for their fun by the powerful. I’ll never look at the Can-Can the same way again, thanks to Bevan’s full-on, desperate, brave and extremely operatic turn. Alex Otterburn, as the quick-change Pluto/Aristaeus who enabled the horrorshow, deserves a mention in dispatches, and Sian Edwards conducted it absolutely beautifully – elegant, romantic, pacy, full of meaning.


Glass half empty

Setting every word of an existing script may not be a great idea unless your name is Debussy or Poulenc, and maybe having more up your sleeve than minor-key arpeggios to accompany it with would help. But Philip Glass (a bit like Gluck) is a composer who works within his limitations, and there are enough people around for whom the Glass payoff of trance or suspended animation is evidently a decent return for the price of a ticket. But the emotional rewards are generally rather exiguous. Glass’ palimpsest of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée is a case in point: a witty, enigmatic piece flattened into banality, its characters imprisoned by flat vocal lines and the inexorable rhythmic strictures of Glass’ orchestra to become mere mouthpieces. A couple of short lyrical duets, with nice Rosenkavalier upward-swoops on divided violins, were more pleasing.

Philip Glass’ Orphée with Nicky Spence, Nicholas Lester and Sarah Tynan (Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore)

Cocteau’s script could be read at leisure in the prosaic translations of the surtitles: not too many came across from the singers, the words anyway inevitably shorn of their power. The director’s task was to give us something to look at, to transport our imaginations beyond the music, and Netia Jones’s neatly tricksy production made good use of projections and sliding sets (put together by Lizzie Clachan, who designed the sets for all four operas) to do just that. I’m not sure it meant much, but the shifting monochromes of characters, lighting and photographs created elusive mysteries, putting back and glossing some of the Cocteau that Glass’ music had neutralised.

Jean Marais and Cocteau’s other actors materialised and faded like ghosts; Jennifer France replicated the look if not the allure of Maria Casarès, the film’s embodiment of death. The charismatic Nicky Spence as the chauffeur Heurtebise rather stole the show from solid but dull Nicholas Lester’s Orphée. Cocteau’s ruminations on love and immortality were duly delivered, and Geoffrey Paterson conducted reverently.


Too little, too late

And so to the headline show, the one with 0.4 million bits of designer glass, where Daniel Kramer (as director) spaffed a huge chunk of the season’s budget and the designers produced a kind of lurid Bosch hellscape. Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus is really a hangover from the decade that editing forgot, a piece of earnest Seventies gigantism to rank with the megaliths of Licht and Einstein, stuff like live triple concept-albums, Tales from Topographic Oceans, Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

Camp vaudeville in Harrison Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)

There could be nothing but praise for the musicians who strove to make it happen, including the two conductors (see what I mean?) Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw, and a massive performance (often in his pants) by Peter Hoare as Orpheus. But Kramer’s direction soon ran out of imagination, and didn’t do either of the things you’d hope for: either a) confront and explain, or b) at least take your mind off the goddamned music.

Act I actually began with some clarity, lucidly juggling the three performers of each role. The work comes from every possible angle simultaneously, with a present and a future avatar of each character, plus a mime-dancer representing them as ‘hero’. This Orpheus was some kind of rockstar in a Beverly Hills penthouse, with (after a rapturous beginning) a pretty rocky marriage. Peter Zinovieff’s libretto is famously impenetrable, but Kramer resorted to his comfort-zone of glittery hyper-camp pageant, the wheels already beginning to wobble alarmingly by the end of the act with the appearance of trios of Priests and Women as vaudeville ‘comedy’ turns, naturally deeply unfunny.

Thenceforth it was repetition, pop-video aesthetics and trapeze tricks all the way, the stage a mess of incoherent excess, like a novelty restaurant trying far too hard. Sonically there were things to admire (if not enjoy), the kinds of seismic earth-noises Birtwistle forces from instruments doing things they were never designed for, roaring, blaring, screaming, hammering, the electronically sampled harp interludes jangling in mad pseudo-Balinese ceremonial (as warty monsters tore each other to bits in a perspex box traversing the stage…). What’s it all for? Kramer had no answers. Sensory overload is fine for a while, but not four hours, and certainly not when nothing is being said. In the end this was all far too much – and far too little.

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