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!).

http _com.ft.imagepublish.upp-prod-eu.s3.amazonaws.com_d1ebbfea-0a1a-11ea-8fb7-8fcec0c3b0f9
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).

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2fd8b30a64-07bc-11ea-872c-a98e8bfab8fc
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

 

‘The Merry Widow’ Comes of Age

images

 

‘Can you hold my drink so that I can leap over you,’ bellows a middle-aged woman in front of me to perfect strangers. Friday night at the Coliseum and some of the punters in the dress circle have been overdoing the Sauvignon. It’s also the opening night of The Merry Widow and all this boisterous behaviour seems de rigeur.

Franz Lehar’s operetta was considered licentious and shocking in 1905 when it was first performed at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Soon the word spread like wildfire and its melodic tunes such as The Merry Widow Waltz, Vilja and Chez Maxim’s were hummed in the street and played on every home piano around Europe.

My eye is drawn to a well-built male in a theatre box adjusting his bright pink feather bower, hair net and diamante hair clips.

The whole of humanity it seems has shown up tonight: opera buffs, young couples with plastic flutes of prosecco, coach parties up from the shires (The Sauvignon crowd). Having arrived on my tod, I am soaking in the mirthful, irreverent atmosphere. The Opera Comique in Paris would have been like this in its heyday.

Operetta is not usually my genre. A mixture of singing and speaking (it is after all the precursor to musicals) tends to grate on me – especially when the dialogue is antiquated and out of synch with today’s sensibilities.

But I have heard Richard Thomas, the librettist, speak recently in interview about his new English translation (from the German). Thomas is used to working outside the box, having being involved in Jerry Springer: The Opera (2003) and Anna Nicole (2011). The dramatist, April de Angelis, also has been employed to modernise the dialogue. Thomas speaks compellingly about The Merry Widow. He claims that it is now fit for the me-too generation (well perhaps not quite).

It is the story of a fabulously wealthy woman, Hanna Glawari, who has recently been widowed. The Baron Zeta, ambassador to the impoverished Balkan state of Pontevedro, wants to marry her off to a Pontevedrin citizen, so that her much needed cash doesn’t leave the country. The lengths he goes to find a suitor, the misunderstandings along the way, create the comedy.

An operetta has to be funny to work. It is, aside its music, its raison d’être.

In this respect, the libretto and spoken dialogue worked well, sometimes a little cheesy but most of the time very funny. A few Brexit jokes and the clerk, Njegus, played by Gerard Carey, was hilarious. In a surreal moment he tries to prevent the Baron Zeta from discovering his wife with her lover under a banquet table. To distract the Baron he grabs a lobster from a dish: ‘I’m being attacked by a lobster and I’m vegan!’ I was reminded of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. As for the song with the seven males lined up in front of their urinals, bemoaning women – well you have to see it. I wasn’t the only female to laugh and then cringe as things got out of hand!

And so to the vocalists. Hannah, played by Sarah Tynan, is a superb soprano. Her version of Vilja, was quite spell-binding. The audience hung onto her every word as she performed the aria sitting on a suspended crescent moon.

ENO-The-Merry-Widow-Sarah-Tynan-and-ENO-Chorus-c-Clive-Barda

Paired with baritone Nathan Gunn in the role of the Count Danilo, she seemed to lose her sparkle however. The romantic duets did not move me as much as I would have wished. Gunn’s voice thinned out on the higher register. And yet he played the reprobate well and seemed more comfortable singing bawdy songs and Chez Maxim’s.

The more successful romantic pairing was that of Rian Louis, Valencienne, and Robert Murray’s Camille. Both sing beautifully and are wonderfully funny and touching. Their duet in a broom cupboard was most memorable, especially as they emerged from a giant painting of a beaver. Not very subtle in its erotic intent but amusing all the same!

The choreography was also slick and designed to amuse. The grisettes dancing in their Doctor Martin boots, the male dancers in their satin shorts straight out of La Cage Aux Folles. I couldn’t help but laugh at the old men with their Zimmer frames scuttling across the stage. Heaven knows why that was funny but it was!

All in all an entertaining new production with great musical highlights.  I left the Coliseum humming the The Merry Widow Waltz and dived into the St Martin’s Lane crowds with a light heart.

 

 

 

The Merry Widow runs for 12 performances: 1,6,8,9,13,15,22,27 and 29 March and 1 and 4 April at 7.30pm and 13 April at 3pm

 

KH