Orphée – Philip Glass’s mesmerising homage to Jean Cocteau

Orphée – Philip Glass

English National Opera, 15 November 2019

After the technicolour excesses of The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera’s season of operas inspired by the Orpheus myth closes with Philip Glass’s 1991 Orphée, a mesmerising, monochrome hommage to Cocteau’s eponymous film of 1950.

The operas of Philip Glass have proved a rich seam for ENO, with a sold out revival of their award-winning Aknaten (2016), and Satyagraha (2017) – both sumptuous, absorbing productions. For those of us attuned to the slow-mo unfolding narratives and choreography of these operas, Orphée by comparison positively jostles – at least in its opening café scene, the influence of French music and Glass’s studies in Paris evident in this sequence. It is also considerably shorter at only two hours, with a small chamber orchestra, though the music is no less satisfying and I was surprised at how texturally rich it was even with reduced orchestral forces.

This new production of Orphée is directed with great imagination and thought by Netia Jones, who combines live action and projection, including fragments of Cocteau’s film, and a constantly counting digital clock, to compelling effect, continually reminding us of the illusory-versus-reality nature of film. This, along with almost entirely monochrome costumes – black with white details redolent of Cocteau’s own line drawings, and only occasional flashes of colour in the red socks of the waiters, Eurydice’s chintz dress or the vivid fuschia pink costume of the Princess in the closing scenes – creates a highly concentrated effect, allowing one to focus on the drama. And then, of course, there is Glass’s hypnotic, spooling music, its unexpected harmonic shifts creating moments of tension and release, as richly-hued and emotionally varied as Schubert (for this reviewer at least!).

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Jennifer France as The Princess (photo © Catherine Ashmore)

Here the Orpheus myth is given a more relatable, contemporary reading: set in post-war Paris, Orphée is a self-absorbed poet who has become passé, who writes but “does not write”, and who has lost his creative impulse. He craves immortality and believes this can be achieved through his implication in the death of Cégeste, a young, successful poet, played with an appropriately teenage sulleness by Anthony Gregory. Though married to Eurydice, who is expecting their child, Orphée falls in love with the enigmatic Princess (Jennifer France), who, representing Death, lures him into the Underworld, via Resistance-style radio broadcasts, and with the assistance of the chauffeur Heurtebise (Nicky Spence). After the vivid black and white of Paris and its noisy bustling cafés where the poets, artists and intellectuals hang out, here the Underworld is a strange shadowy place of crumbling, bombed out buildings and crazed souls (Albert Einstein makes an appearance, a pleasing nod to Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach).

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Nicholas Lester as Orphée with Sarah Tynan Eurydice (Photo: DONALD COOPER/PHOTOSTAGE)

“We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” wrote Jean Cocteau – and in this production the mirror, as both a reflection of ourselves and our own immortality, Glass’s reflection on Cocteau’s film and Cocteau’s reflections on notions of fame and reputation, becomes central to the visual narrative. Physically, a mirror is the entrance (and exit) to the Underworld, and it becomes a perilous piece of interior decoration when Orphée and Eurydice are allowed to return from the Underworld on the condition that Orphée does not ever look at Eurydice’s face. A large empty frame, which glides across the stage at intervals, serves the double purpose of “framing” the narrative while also reminding us that this opera is based on a film: in effect, it acts as a freeze-frame to capture significant moments; the projections reinforce this.

Although conceived on a small scale, Netia Jones’ production turns this intimate, intense drama into a cinematic spectacular. While some of the vocal colour of the original French libretto is lost in this new English translation, there are some entertaining, witty and genuinely poignant moments, and given the profound, philosophical nature of the Orpheus myth, and Cocteau’s eccentric film, this retelling is satisfyingly human and accessible. There is also a fleeting reference to Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a fragment of the famous ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ in a flute solo, which neatly connects this to the opera which opened ENO’s 2019/20 season.

There are fine performances by all the lead parts. Nicholas Lester as Orphée is petulant and narcisstic, though increasingly sympathetic towards the close. Sarah Tynan plays Eurydice as the vulnerable, wounded, ignored wife, while Jennifer France as the Princess is haughty and histrionic. But it is Heurtebise the chauffeur, sung by Nicky Spence, who really steals the show, at once obsequious in his duty to the Princess but also tender and caring in his love for Eurydice.

In sum, this is an exquisitely playful, poignant production, with some genuine hair-standing moments, and an accessible, convincing drama that may leave you wondering what really lies on the other side of that mirror in the hallway……

Recommended

Orphee continues at ENO/London Coliseum until 29 November


FW

 

Trouble in Rice’s Underworld

 

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Emma Rice’s ENO staging of Orpheus in the Underworld has been much maligned in the traditional press recently, much to my dismay. Her efforts to update this nineteenth century operetta to suit the modern zeitgeist and ‘me too’  sensibility have been frowned upon by those supposedly in the know, who see her efforts to change storylines and libretto as “vulgar” and humourless. 

Emma Rice is anything but! She does like to provoke but in many ways there is method to her madness. Much research for a start. And so what if she gets a little carried away sometimes!

Rice follows a long tradition of creatives who have tried to inject new meaning into traditional story-lines. Offenbach himself, cooked up a storm with the press in 1858, when he opened his two-act Orpheus in the Underworld (he wrote two versions – one two act and a later four act) at the Bouffes-Parisiens. On that occasion, the press accused him of satirising Gluck’s elegant Orpheus and Eurydice, of blaspheming antiquity and of attacking Napoleon III – in short he had created a monster!

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice was serious and romantic by comparison (see my recent review of Orpheus and Eurydice at ENO here: McGregor’s Dance in ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ Gets the Youth Backing)  

In Offenbach’s reincarnation of the myth, the luckless pair are married and unhappily so.

Despite the press’s opposition, Napoleonic society did give Offenbach’s controversial production a chance, and before long, the composer had a huge success on his hands.

When Rice first set eyes on Offenbach’s operetta, she was much disturbed by the representation of Offenbach’s Eurydice as an angry wife, who slept around happily with different gods from Mount Olympus and the Underworld. What was the point, thought the seasoned theatre director, if a modern audience doesn’t feel any sympathy towards Orpheus’s frisky wife. For Eurydice to sleep with Pluto (disguised as a shepherd), Rice wanted her to have a good reason. The reason came in the form of the death of Eurydice’s and Orpheus’s baby and their inability to bond over their grief.

Rice’s tragic narrative add-on has disturbed today’s journalists, who see it as a step too far, a cheap trick and out of place in what is supposed to be a light-hearted operetta. I disagree.

The humour was sparkling in the performance I attended. Alex Otterburn singing Pluto, was magnificent. When he tosses his long curly mane and swishes around in a sequinned suit and flame-tipped trousers with barbed tail singing, ‘I’m as handsome as hell’, you cannot help but laugh. He’s exuberant, a wonderful tenor and perfect for the riotous, rakish role.

Mary Bevan’s Eurydice brought gravitas to the operetta. She was truly moving when she delivered heart-breaking lines such as ‘What is this sweet and strange sensation’ and ‘The mess of living falls away’ in her sweet soprano voice as she lies dying from a snake bite. As a grief-stricken mother, Bevan was totally plausible welcoming death and infernal love as a way of blotting out the trauma of losing a child. Most reviewers, I am happy to say, have praised Bevan’s performance.

The cast of gods and goddesses was equally strong. Willard White’s bass baritone stood out as it should and he played Jupiter displaying just the right amount of calm authority and seductive power as befits the top dog on Mount Olympus. Under that charm, was a person who lies to get what he wants. He seduces Eurydice disguised as a fly, then tricks Orpheus finally with disastrous consequences. Jupiter’s underhand behaviour in the final act is another Emma Rice construct. 

The stage and costumes did much to lighten the mood. Lots of colourful sequin dresses on Mount Olympus in Act II. The kingdom was a gleaming multi-levelled Hollywoodian swimming pool, complete with bellboy servants serving drinks. The gods, backed up by the chorus, created a wonderfully rich sound. Really impressive. Sometimes I had to remind myself I was at the opera though, not watching a Busby Berkley production!

Memorable too, were the Underworld scenes, notably the Peep Show in which poor Eurydice finds herself. Alan Oke playing Styx, stood out as Pluto’s sleazy henchman. Long-haired with a bald patch and dressed in a long, dirty cardigan and mack, he sang a show-stopping “King of Poland” number. Here, he not only displayed his amazing voice but his great comedic ability too.

 

ENO Orpheus in the Underworld 2019, (c) Clive Barda (8)

My concerns were channelled towards the final Act IV, where Rice introduced amplification and a mic at the infernal party where the ghostly gallop infernal ie the can-can, is performed. I am a fan of Rice’s, but mics are clearly redundant in opera! Singers  have spent the best part of their lives building up their voices and have no need of them. The use of amplification and bright lighting had already caused Emma Rice’s premature departure as artist director at the Globe Theatre in 2018. 

Disappointing too was Act IV abrupt end. The tragedy on stage did not reflect in the music. Rice however could not change Offenbach’s music, hence the disconnect.

Otherwise I really enjoyed the performance and one cannot take away the brilliance of the stellar cast. I feel I have not done them justice in this review but go and see for yourselves.

And one other thing – it’s my little guilty secret. I have seen a lot of opera in my time but never Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. I had no preconceived ideas on how it should be staged or performed. I was coming to it fresh, like probably hundreds of late-teens I saw in the Coliseum audience that night, who seemed to enjoy the show as much as I did.

 

KH

Orpheus in the Underworld remaining dates: 23rd, 30th October. 1st, 8th, 12th, 21st, 26, 28th November. Matinées 19, 26th October

Still running Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: 17th, 24th 31st October. 14 and 19th November