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The most complete show of the Orpheus series, the ENO’s production of Orphée follows Philip Glass into the mystery and magic of the silver screen.
Jean Cocteau’s take on the Orpheus myth – itself concerned with imitation – is a fitting challenge for Glass to take up. The poet Orphée, in his rabbit-hole quest for immortality, receives inspiration through the writing of a younger poet, via a car’s radio. Glass found his inspiration from an older voice, but we still receive the products through shifting lenses of production. Netia Jones as director presents Orphée through sliding frames, live camera angles and perspectives. It’s like the construction site of a film, both set and editing room at once; amongst all this, the opening night’s press photographer fits in seamlessly and might even be missed in subsequent performances. We are constantly aware this is something handed-down and interpreted – as Jones comments, ‘an opera of a film of a play of a poem of an opera’.
The production also gives Glass’s music a chance be to breathe – to be more than just a soundtrack. Some of the most powerful moments of the evening come from pauses in the action: a still moment after the tribunal in the second half, or the ground-shaking climax of the first act as Heurtebise and Orphée slowly move towards a mirror and the underworld. The music brings Glass’ most recognisable arpeggiated mysteriousness; but it does much more. It is dark and shadowy, conjuring video game monsters and deep-sea creatures just as easily as the underworld’s traditional inhabitants.
Like much of the composer’s music, Orphée bears comparison to film scores and this production pays homage to Glass’ fascination with the world of movies. Before the opera begins, a boxer works onstage between the walls of a studio. We find him again later in the underworld with other miscellaneous figures: a surgeon, fencer, opera singer, characters from the 1950 film and even from Einstein on the Beach. The original, strange magic of Cocteau’s movie has been transferred onto the movie-making world itself. The last of a series of productions revolving around a single myth, Orphée has the most to say about the myth-making apparatus of modern culture. Marvel churns through mythic heroes and villains (and their backstories) at such a rate that its unclear which, if any, will achieve immortality. Jones’ undead cast of forgotten boxing movies that weren’t quite Rocky and countless TV doctors that weren’t quite House bring Orphée’s anxiety bang up to date with a pop-culture environment where, more than ever, myth has become industry.
Some things haven’t changed. Just as François Périer stole the spotlight as the original Heurtebise, Nicky Spence’s characterful performance stands out. It comes to the fore in the second half, when the grey walls of the studio become unstuck to float through the underworld like enormous, shadowy tombstones. Indeed, while the more interesting cinematic parallels are teed up in the first act, the emotional heft of the show is reserved for after the interval. Several such moments are delivered by Jennifer France, presenting the Princess’ illicit love for Orphée passionately. She teams up with Spence for the show’s touching climax, the two sacrificing themselves to unnameable torment for the sake of the poet and his famous relationship with Eurydice.
Do audiences need to watch Cocteau’s film before coming to see Glass’ opera? Probably not: the latter’s music speaks for itself and the production is sharp enough to communicate a potentially murky story with clarity. But there are also plenty of Easter eggs hidden between the two versions to enjoy (or at least pretend to, in time with your neighbours). More interesting are the ways in which Glass’ music shifts the tone of the film, without the libretto making any significant changes to the original scripts. Weeping violins transport Orphée and the Princess to the world of cheesy romance flicks; he returns with Eurydice to a rambunctious domestic comedy, living room clad in flowery patterned gingham. Lizzie Clachan’s set design works economically to amplify the shifts of tone in the music, without impinging on a sense of space or crowding the performances.
Beyond some first-night hiccups – the frontmost screen apparently breaking during the second act and an uncomfortable voice break for Tynan in an otherwise impressive performance – there is a feeling that this is the surest instalment of the Orpheus season at the ENO. It is explorative and unsettling, but also approachably moving. More than anything, the different elements of the production come together to serve each other and the music. If Nicholas Lester’s performance in the titular role is a little underwhelming, it is only because of the consistently strong performances around him. From myth to movie to poem to opera, this production of Orphée comes off movingly and – itself in part about the alchemy of putting a story together – reveals more than a little of its own magic.
And so to the last of ENO’s four Orpheus operas. Philip Glass’s opera of Jean Cocteau’s film is not, perhaps an obvious choice. It certainly gets the full works with a stylish, inventive production from Netia Jones, who also collaborated on the translation, and designed the costumes and the videos. 1930s Paris, and Surrealist chic make for a diverting twist on the Orpheus story, especially when combined with such a visually enticing production in which the black and white colour scheme and video projections provide a fabulous contrast to the pink tea roses on Eurydice’s dress, sheets, and wallpaper and the glamorous cerise cape and dress of the Princess. It looks wonderful, and will have done its job if it gets hipsters to go the opera
We arrive to discover activity already underway on stage as though people are rehearsing for something about to be filmed, with digital clocks counting the seconds and the radio already blaring out snatches of incomprehensible material that Orphee later becomes obsessed with transcribing.
Cocteau’s film hadn’t worn well when I saw it twenty years ago. It felt pointlessly incoherent, visually gorgeous, emotionally uninvolving, and ultimately rather irritating. Up itself in a very French way, it assumed that the viewer would find the agonies of the creative process, the insecurity that comes from being judged by your work, and the need to keep finding fresh inspiration – whether aesthetic, erotic, or both – as fascinating as the artist does. Cocteau’s hero is even more badly behaved than Offenbach’s, neglecting his pregnant wife to attend to his obsessions whether it’s transcribing nonsense coming from the radio or fantasising about the exquisitely contoured icy princess who is later revealed to be death. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the surrealism is less of a disturbing hint at rifts below the surface of bourgeois normality and more a convenient excuse for grabbing a series of stylish images – the Princess’s motorcycle messengers who keep killing the cast are certainly that – without needing to work them into a coherent whole.
Even more problematically, turning the film into an opera doesn’t do it any favours, as Glass can’t replicate Cocteau’s imagery, while singing the dialogue slows it down disastrously (not that seeing the subtitled words helps it to make sense). This operaticised piece of dated cinema is arguably an exercise in perversity, something that it shares with the original film. You can make a soufflé out of toothpaste but why would you bother?
Glass does his usual thing in the orchestra – and with more skill and variety than in his earlier works – but the power of his music comes from the cumulative effect of its repetition, which means that the singers’ lines sound fragmentary, ordinary, and incidental to what is going on in the orchestra. It reminded me of that other attempt to turn dialogue into opera, Debussy’s Pelleas, and the results are no more encouraging. Dramatically, it feels more like The Making of the Representative Of Planet Eight, alas, than Akhnaten or Satyagraha.
There is a waste of some fine vocal talent. Nicholas Lester’s Orphée and Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice don’t have a lot to do, but do it very well. The bigger, more demanding parts are Death/the Princess, sung by Jennifer France who manages exorbitantly high tessitura while looking intensely glamorous, and her chauffeur Heurtebise, powerfully and beautifully sung by Nicky Spence. They both have bags of stage charisma, although you wonder whether they have any more clue than the rest of us about what they are doing in a depiction of the Orpheus myth. It brings out the best in an impressive cast, is beautifully done, and doesn’t overstay its welcome, but – again so like Pelleas – leaves you wondering what was the point and whether all that talent could have gone into something better, Monteverdi’s Orfeo for example.