Aerialists, Matthew Smith (Orpheus Hero) and Alfa Marks (Eurydice Hero)
Commissioned by ENO, The Mask of Orpheus, caused quite a stir when it premiered at the Coliseum in 1986. Some heralded it as a genius work. Others found it difficult, which probably explains why it has not been fully staged again until now.
There is no doubt that Harrison Birtwistle’s three-hour epic composition was a radical musical departure from the opera on offer at the time. Composers flocked to the premiere to hear Birtwistle’s new sound. The use of prerecorded electronic music to supplement the acoustic score was deemed highly innovative and damned exciting.
Fast forward to today, I can see why The Mask of Orpheus could be regarded as a challenge to stage. Birtwistle’s version of the myth is not linear. Orpheus’s tale of love and loss is played out over and over in Ground Hog day fashion.
There is a further detail to test the patience of the traditional opera goer; in Mask of Orpheus, Orpheus appears under three different guises: Orpheus The Man, Orpheus The Hero and Orpheus the Myth. Birtwistle was obsessed with the classics and was particularly drawn to Orpheus, who has, over time, he argues, come to embody both the hero and the myth. Birtwistle chose to do the same with Eurydice and her seducer, Aristaeus.
Confused? It all made sense on stage when I saw it performed the night of the 25th of October. Orpheus Man was the young Orpheus in love, Orpheus the Myth, the older version of Orpheus who had taken to drink. In Hero guises, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus, didn’t sing but mimed and performed balletically on ropes. Former circus performers and aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman were amazing, reenacting the passion, jealousy, rage and finally tenderness felt by Orpheus for his wife (see header image).
Indeed all the dancers were outstanding in this production, displaying split-second timing, and great versatility and control. The dance troupe performing various mythic characters were extraordinary to watch, their jerky, desperate movements behind a glass wall, mimicking angry, trapped insects. The choreography was underpinned by the bee theme as Aristaeus is not only Eurydice’s seducer but also beekeeper and representative of nature. Barnaby Booth’s choreography was quite brilliant. He is definitely one to watch out for in future operatic and theatrical productions.
On the night, Birtwistle’s music still sounded fresh and inventive after all these years. It was accessible and engaging too. In sections, I could distinguish Wagnerian strains and melodies which started off as background sound, only to suddenly swell like waves rising slowly in the deep ocean. Claire Barnett-Jones, playing Eurydice Myth, was a superb ‘Valkyrie’, both in body and voice, and so were the furies.
Peter Hoare was equally impressive, as Orpheus Man in crimson wrap, decorated with sparkling lyre. Sporting blonde spiky hair, Hoare bore an uncanny resemblance to comedian Eddie Izzard. He was captivating throughout, dying and being reborn again, repeating the same mistake with Eurydice. His voice and enunciation were superb. I could understand every word that he sung, even when his speech was supposed to be unintelligible! Memorable was his haunting, pared down, jazzy delivery of Cole Porter’s song, ’Every time we say goodbye’ as he slow-danced with Eurydice Woman on the bed. Marta Fontanals-Simmons, incarnating the young Eurydice had tremendous presence and the purity and passion in her voice, expressed the newness of her love for Orpheus most eloquently.
The staging was a dress designer’s dream. You couldn’t miss the furies with their bright orange beehives, exaggerated posteriors and breasts, squeezed into rubber dresses. They were reminiscent of Nicki de Saint Phalle’s swollen statues in the Stravinsky Fountain, Paris.
Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw and Katie Coventry as Furies.
Nicki de Saint Phalle’s women.
All in all a totally absorbing, ambitious and cohesive production of Birtwistle’s monumental work. The ending was absolutely spell-binding, sweet music finally opening up and spilling out into its ecstatic conclusion.
A unique and unforgettable experience!
The Mask of Orpheus : Remaining performances : 29th October, 7th and 13th November 2019