The Mask of Orpheus synopsis
Music by Harrison Birtwistle
Libretto by Peter Zinovieff
First performed: 1986
Apollo presides at the birth of Orpheus and gives him the gifts of speech, poetry and music. His first memory is of his heroic voyage on the Argos with Jason and his men: ‘The King stands highest over fifty men.’
Orpheus falls in love with Euridice. She agrees to marry him.
The myth of Dionysus
The Titans captured Dionysus, who tried in vain to escape by assuming the form of a bull, a snake and a lion. Although they killed him, Rhea, his grandmother, reconstituted him and brought him up as a woman. He discovered wine and its effects.
In the wedding ceremony, Hymen (god of marriage) is invoked and the priests ask ritual questions; but there are bad omens: Hymen arrives late and Euridice stumbles repeatedly in the ritual. Not even Orpheus can dispel this atmosphere with his love-song for Euridice.
Two versions of the death of Euridice. Euridice wanders by the river.
The myth of Lycurgus.
Lycurgus and his men fought Dionysus and captured his followers. Rhea released them and made Lycurgus so mad that he killed his one son thinking he was pruning a vine. The earth turned barren at the crime. Dionysus returned and Lycurgus, taken by his people to a mountain, was torn apart by wild horses.
Aristaeus, Man and Hero, make love at the same time to Euridice. In one case she resists and in the other she does not. In both versions she dies from the bite of a water-snake.
The myth of anemone.
Venus loved the beautiful Adonis. Despite her warnings, he hunted wild boar and was fatally wounded in the genitals. Brought by her swans to his side, she could not save him, but in sorrow, she sprang the anemone, a flower whose petals fall quickly in the wind.
Aristaeus tells Orpheus of Euridice’s death.
The first time distortion: Orpheus imagines it was he, not Aristaeus, who saw Euridice die. There are echoes of the love duet during Euridice’s funeral ceremony, and the priests invoke Hermes, who, it is hoped, will guide her to the Underworld. They enact a ritual of the Tree of Life. Orpheus stands apart, unable to accept the fact that he could not save her. He leaves the ceremony to consult the Oracle of the Dead. The Oracle envies his powers and gives him three clues to the Underworld in exchange for his magical power of music: ‘Always face the way of the sun’; Choose without choosing’; ‘Never address anyone directly’. But when the Oracle tries to copy his song all she can manage is hysterical screeching. Orpheus now imagines he can find his way to the Underworld. While he describes seventeen arches which connect the mountain of the living to that of the dead, Euridice is metamorphosed into a myth.
The second time distortion: another version of Euridice’s dearth, in which she is killed by a giant snake. Orpheus Man, exhausted, has a deep and terrible sleep, in which he dreams, he as Orpheus the Hero, descends through the arches into the Underworld. All the figures he confronts are grotesque versions of the characters he has encountered in Act One. As the Oracle instructed, he walks backwards, always facing the sun he is leaving behind; on his descent there are many obstacles, because it is forbidden for the living to enter the Underworld.
1st Arch: ‘Countryside’ Orpheus sings to Charon and crosses the River Styx.
2nd Arch: ‘Crowds’ Orpheus’ music brings tears, for the first time, to the eyes of the Furies.
3rd Arch: ‘Evening’ The judges of the dead foretell his death. Orpheus sees a vision of Euridice.
4th Arch: ‘Contrasts’ Orpheus drinks from the pool of memory but refuses to drink from the pool of forgetfulness. He has a second vision of Euridice.
5th Arch: ‘Dying’ Orpheus notices those in torment as he passes.
6th Arch: ‘Wings’ His magic overcomes even the fiercest of the characters of the Underworld.
7th Arch: ‘Colour’ At last Orpheus reaches the centre of the Underworld and stands before its rulers: Hades, his wife Persephone, and the Goddess of Witches, Hecate. He fails to see their resemblance to himself, Euridice or the Oracle.
8th Arch: ‘Secrecy’ Orpheus is surrounded by the awesome trio but continues to sing.
9th Arch: ‘Glass’ Orpheus escapes from them.
10th Arch: ‘Buildings’ He finds himself among myriads of wispy shadows resembling Euridice.
11th Arch: ‘Weather’ Although the Euridice phantoms dance around him, he makes no choice.
12th Arch: ‘Eyes’ Orpheus begins his return, imagining that the real Euridice is following, changing back from a mere shadow into human form, but in fact, it is Persephone who follows.
13th Arch: ‘Knives’ Persephone stumbles and another Euridice takes her place. Orpheus overcomes the same obstacles as on his decent: in turn they utter screams and disappear. Euridice tries to follow but the dead cannot leave the Underworld. One form of Euridice takes the place of another. As Orpheus journeys, he hears Apollo’s voice in his head urging him to, ‘Sing, sing, sing’.
14th Arch: ‘Animals’ Orpheus reaches the River Styx and crosses it. Charon refuses to take Euridice and she falls back. As Orpheus emerges into the sunlight, he awakes. Too late. Euridice is already fading from his memory.
15th Arch: ‘Ropes’ Orpheus has lost Euridice for ever.
16th Arch: ‘Order ’Orpheus realises he has dreamt his entire journey, and, as Orpheus Hero, he re-enacts it.
17th Arch: Orpheus mourns Euridice and rejects the three women who offer to marry him.
The myth of the hyacinth. Apollo and the young Hyacinth completed at the discus. Apollo’s return discus killed the Hyacinth and the god could not save him. He changed him into a flower, with the mournful Greek characters, ‘Ai-Ai’ upon its petals.
Orpheus is so desolate that he hangs himself.
The third time distortion: Orpheus Hero is rejected by the Underworld and re-born as a myth.
Episode 1: Orpheus Hero re-enacts his journey out of the Underworld with Euridice. She dies and he hangs himself.
Episode 2: Orpheus Man sings his imaginary descent to the Underworld.
Episode 3: The death of Euridice is seen again but this time observed by Orpheus Man and Hero, instead of Aristaeus.
The myth of the lotus. Beautiful Dryope was suckling her child by a pool. When she plucked a lotus flower, to her horror she found drops of blood upon her hand. She did not know that the nymph, Lotus, had been changed into the flower to escape the lust of Pryapus. She too became a lotus tree. Her husband and father protected the tree from animals and allowed her son to play the shade of what had been mother.
Orpheus sings a second verse and remembers his imaginary ascent from the Underworld.
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