Dancers in the Underworld. Company Wayne
London was in the eye of a rainstorm on the opening night of Orpheus and Eurydice at the ENO so I was relieved to step into the Colosseum’s warm, crimson interior and bound up the stairs to my seat. In the dress circle, people were filming the grand auditorium and taking pictures of the colourful safety curtain for ENO’s 2019/20 season, comprising a lyre-playing Apollo and Orpheus on violin, painted in the style of a Chagall or a Dufy.
A little frisson down the rows made me look round: a young man with a well trimmed beard was descending the stair with a retinue of blonde women flicking their sun-bleached hair and laughing. Were they stars from the Made in Chelsea cast?
An announcement was made. Alice Coote, playing Orpheus (she always plays the trouser role) was pulling herself out of her sick bed to entertain us that night.
Gluck’s opera has just three solo singing parts and Alice Coote, singing Orpheus, had the principal one. I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been more sensible to get an understudy, but I imagined Coote was the last person to bow out of anything. I hoped she was going to survive this stage marathon, and also (quite selfishly) – to impress.
My mind turned to other matters; namely the dance element in this opera. Much had been made of the fact that Orpheus and Eurydice was a collaboration between ENO and studio Wayne McGregor. Classical dance is no new thing in opera and there’s plenty of it in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice! What I was anticipating was however some modern choreography and a new type of interaction with the singers.
In the ENO programme, McGregor, a perfectionist I imagine, rightfully voiced the challenges of combining the two mediums. “I’ve worked on about eighteen operas, and I’m always trying to work out the best way to work with the singer and the dancer. It can be a very difficult hybrid”.
Yes! On the night in question, I hoped that it would be both imaginative and would bring a new element to the mythic narrative.
Orpheus, devastated by the death of his wife, Eurydice, goes to the underworld to get her back. He has been told by Love, that he has a chance of drawing her out of Hades by singing beautifully. HIs voice can placate Cerberus, the furies.
There were moments when the dancers shone, for example as furies in Act II in the underworld in their reflective costumes (see header pic). In Act III they worked well with Gluck’s elegant score in a modern interpretation of a formal dance before the Elysian Fields scene.
Memorable also was the bird dance duet performed by two male dancers, their backs beautifully arched, their chests thrust forward to suggest two plump birds. However elsewhere, the dancers were de trop in what was already an emotionally charged libretto (there was much talk of heartbreak and wanting death). Here they became a distraction, when the audience should have been concentrating on the singer’s voice.
Despite my misgivings, there is no doubt that for the younger members in the audience, the dancers were a cool addition to their entertainment.
The ENO chorus was outstanding as usual. McGregor’s decision to put them in the orchestra pit was an interesting one. On the one hand, their voices wafted up celestially, all the way to the dress circle where I was sitting. There was a problem however. The absence of chorus on stage created great gaps on either side and there was little or no scenery, other than a flickering screen.
Alice Coote meanwhile showed her mettle. She started off a little feebly in the opening act and seemed to have trouble mounting her scales in the big bravura aria. She was supposed to be grief- stricken though after her wife’s death from a snakebite, so we could say she was in character.
Sarah Tynan, singing Eurydice, spent most of the first act lying suspended in a glass tank, like one of Damian Hirst’s luckless animal specimens. It was quite effecting and dreamlike.
Vocally, acts IV and V were more compelling. Tynan sang her disappointment movingly, when she believed her husband was cold towards her. The duet, with Coote singing “My soul is in torment” and Tynan “In a sleep everlasting” was poignantly expressed. Coote built up to the famous aria, “Where is love without you,” and the sincerity in her voice rang true.
And there is no denying that Gluck’s music is ravishing with life-enhancing echoes of Vivaldi and Rameau (Gluck much admired the two composers) This production however is Berlioz’s adaption of the original opera.
Conductor Harry Bicket, made a good job of ensuring that the strings, flutes and harps, conjoined to create a bright, sophisticated, focussed sound. The audience in the end was appreciative but divided on the dance. An ageist gulf seemed to have opened up at the end. The younger generation gave Wayne McGregor and his troupe thunderous applause but there was muttering along my row.
You can’t please everyone but actually the applause was decent and appreciative overall.
I’m looking forward to ENO’s next offering in the Orpheus cycle: ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ directed by former Globe director, Emma Rice. No doubt there will be much debate over her directorial decisions too. She is no stranger to controversy! But I really hope it works as I’m a great fan of hers!
All in all, a promising start to the Orpheus cycle and ENO is to be thanked, once again, for endeavouring to encourage new creative approaches to opera. In this way, the genre is more likely to grow and become more relevant to our times.
Orpheus and Eurydice continues at ENO : Oct 10, 17, 24, 31 & Nov 14, 19 at 19:30. Oct 12 at 14:00