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English National Opera’s (ENO) production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice begins with the joyous union of the couple, only the music very slowly changes to something more sombre while Eurydice is carried off beyond the valley of the living and joining the dead, leaving Orpheus behind to mourn.
Costume / Set / lighting
When I heard about Orpheus and Eurydice I automatically assumed that the costumes and set would be that of draped togas with it being set in a forest and travel to a dungeon of sorts with an iron gate to physically transport you to that place in time to mimic that of the story itself. Whereas this production embodies more of the psychological and emotional experiences the characters are experiencing; confusion, peace, fear, grief, anarchy, violence etc are beautifully portrayed within the costumes and set. Which translated itself into a set with minimal props and limited colours scheme. This meant that the Grecian modern costumes completed the set as the garments were able to be bolder in their design such as the contrasting black & white, red and white chequered togas which suddenly transformed into a fluorescence piece under ultraviolet light which was used for an extraordinary dance piece.
Music / Performances / Direction
Placing the choir in the Pit alongside the orchestra created a more daunting and haunting atmosphere to the whole production, especially in Act two when Orpheus enters the underworld and eventually soothes the furies. It meant that the rest of the stage can be explored and used more by the performance and make the stage feel like a much bigger and echoing cave than a stage without showing it.
The music of Gluck’s brilliantly translated into movement as well emotion. The music fills the room with emotions of the characters and their location. The choreography enforces the potency of what is going on, especially in the form of moulding and ballet within the Opera.
When I saw the dancer first lead Orpheus around the underworld I wasn’t sure what is the point of him was, but looking back, I think it was a good decision to have him as a sort of guide along his journey a bit like the Charon who in Greek mythology ferries the newly dead across the river of Styx.
I’m not sure why but the use of shadow work when ‘Love’ arrived and was communicating with Orpheus didn’t seem necessary to me. This could have been because from where I was sitting I had a really good view of what was going on, so it could be that I lost the effect it was meant to have compared to someone sitting at one of the higher balconies, it would have seemed a lot more dramatic. Although, I did find that it worked well at the start when the dancers were mourning with Orpheus before they left.
Summing up, what I’ve said the overall impact of costume music of all three were skilfully used.
It’s an opera that seems bleak throughout, yet you do find tranquillity and joy. And I found that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the overall theme of loss and sorrow that you would usually attribute to the story.
The music, performances from the dancers and singers, set, lighting and costume all combined into a production that made you grieve alongside Orpheus but I was also lifted by the beauty of the performance.
I’m really satisfied with the ending I got from the show. I know there are many interpretations of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but I think treating us and the characters to a happy ending is sometimes what we want.
The story of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is opera pared down to essentials. One central hero enacts the most central of stories: the pain of lost love. This ENO production is careful not to crowd that simplicity, letting Alice Coote’s powerful performance speak for itself; Wayne McGregor finds room to impress in several mesmerising moments of set-piece dance.
From its piecing together in the opening moments, the stage is uncluttered and often layered with significance. Eurydice’s sickly yellow tomb in the opening scenes divides the lovers but also serves an emblematic purpose. The sheet plastic box design glances at the modern art world of Damien Hirst, even as Eurydice – suspended in white and clutching flowers to her chest – recreates an iconic tableau from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. This combination of registers presents itself throughout the production: Louise Gray’s high-fashion elements of costume design are placed alongside a sense of quest and adventure (Orpheus is presented with a blindfold in lieu of a magic weapon, or flute). Soraya Mafi as Amore cuts a figure somewhere between Hermes and a puckish Tinkerbell. In all of this McGregor and his team are able to powerfully communicate the timelessness of Orpheus’ story and its universal appeal to audiences with different identities and frames of reference.
Jon Clark’s lighting design complements this simplicity movingly. The opening funeral is populated by grotesque shadows thrown onto either stage wall; without overexertion, Orpheus’ grief and alienation take a monstrous form – a premonition, too, of the hellish creatures Orpheus will soon face in Hell. The extended sequence as Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld is difficult and shifting yellow rectangles break up the changes of momentum in a long passage. Unlike earlier scenes, however, it isn’t sure what this backdrop communicates, and it is a relief when the lights come up at Eurydice’s death.
In letting Eurydice live, Gluck leaves the contemporary director a problematic conclusion. So close to the intensely painful beauty of Orpheus’ mourning, a simple reunion drops the audience with a jar to the level of trite fairy-tale. In turning away from classical source material, Gluck conforms to the revisionist tendencies of 18th century decorum. His director today takes up the challenge of selling this uncomfortable rewrite to a modern audience.
McGregor saves some surprises for the end. A symbolic union of song and movement is particularly effective, as Orpheus and Eurydice embrace each other’s mirror image from the company of dancers. In a production with such exciting choreography, Coote is destined to be caught occasionally looking stilted by comparison. McGregor persuasively allays this tension in the final moments, as the lovers’ bond movingly performs the stylistic relationship between music and ballet in Gluck’s opera.
At the last, however, we are left with an ending that reads regrettably like: ‘it was all just a dream’. Eurydice returns to her tomb from the first act and Orpheus, once again, is alone. Suddenly, the story is realigned with its classical precedent and one last hit of pathos will be effective for some. It feels like a missed opportunity, though, trading away a touching moment of stylistic discovery. It’s also, I think, a missed opportunity to present a more complicated image of changing love in a relationship; the dancing counterparts hint at how the lovers, while together again, cannot restore the simplicity of first love. Instead, the two embrace…and then Orpheus wakes up.
On paper, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice sticks out like a sore, 18th-century thumb in ENO’s current season. In a lineup dominated by satirical or contemporary takes on the classical myth, this revered original seems rooted in tradition to the point of anachronism. The lead role was written for a castrato; the music is often harmonically simple, and regularly turns to recitative; but, most strikingly of all, the narrative is one of hope rather than cynicism. It’s a compelling example of what John Eliot Gardiner has called “the touching honesty and emotional directness of Gluck’s opera scores”: a sincere assertion of faith in the power of both music and humanity to overcome darkness. Wayne McGregor’s production translates the purity of Gluck’s original with a balance of innovation and dignity, bringing both the obligatory modern twist and a sense of timelessness to ENO’s Orpheus series.
This was a Tate Modern take on the classical canon: the uncanny resemblance between the set and the Turbine Hall was cemented by the presence of a pack of good-looking young people in active wear. These were in fact the Company Wayne McGregor, the director’s team of dancers, who had ousted the chorus from both the stage and their traditional role in visualising the narrative. McGregor’s unusual move paid off: the dancers provided a refreshing interpretation of Gluck’s opening lament, delivered in many productions by a horde of background singers shuffling about in poorly-made togas. The choreography rendered avatars in dance for not only the characters but the motifs in Gluck’s music, highlighting the order and grace of the composition while allowing McGregor to showcase his contemporary style. These skillful and memorable visual pairings added a sense of decorum to proceedings, even in the Elysian Fields, where a saccharine flute melody was represented by a dancer with a neon heart plastered to her behind.
Flinging themselves sinuously around the stage in various states of undress, the dance troupe posed a stark contrast to Alice Coote as Orpheus. Coote was the focal point of the production, a near-constant presence on stage as the narrative exploded around her in an epileptic neon nightmare; clad in a baggy black and white number reminiscent of an off-duty PE teacher, she seemed physically weighed down by her grief, rooted to the stage as she delivered recitatives and arias alike with powerful emotional charge. Her presence- both on stage and as a performer- anchored a spectacle that slipped as fluidly between earthly and hellish realms as Gluck’s score did from chorus to aria, under Harry Bicket’s lively baton.
Gluck set out to revive the stagnating genre of opera seria with Alceste in 1769, pioneering a more sparse, naturalistic approach to an art form which had become bogged down by contemporary tastes. Audiences’ appetite for floridity had conspired with the superstar status of castrati singers to reduce the operatic aria to little more than a flurry of vocal runs, designed to showcase the performer’s talent rather than to serve the drama. Coote delivered Gluck’s arias with decorum and pathos, and worked through her coloratura dutifully enough, but was left to shoulder too much of the spectacle when abandoned on the minimalist set by the dance troupe for large swathes of the first act.
It is a testament to the performances of both Coote, and Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, that the barrenness of the stage enhanced rather than detracted from the climax of the opera, as Orpheus struggled to lead her back to the land of the living. Christopher Cowell’s translation characterised Eurydice with efficiency and detail, from her reluctance to leave the pleasant oblivion of the underworld to her childish outburst and wounded vanity when her husband refused to look at her; the frustration of both characters was vividly and agonisingly portrayed in every facet of the scene, making them seem sympathetic rather than frustrating. Tynan, and Soraya Mafi’s Love, brought sparkling soprano colour that enlivened both the musical texture and the greyish colour palette; they also emphasised Orpheus’s isolation, flitting just out of Coote’s grasp in diaphanous costumes that allied them solidly with the supernatural, unearthly action unfolding as she staggered from scene to scene.
Gluck’s music, and the version of the Orpheus myth which he chose to recount, can seem almost naive in their simplicity and optimism; his plot resolves as surely as one of his suspensions, whose agony, however protracted, holds the promise of a perfect cadence. McGregor’s production explored its place in the 21st century with a balance of verve and respect, preserving 18th century intentions in a distinctly modern interpretation.
Wayne McGregor’s interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice feels like two drastically different performances, one musical and the other a dance, that have been spliced together to create an uneven and, at times, uninspired piece. ENO’s latest season offers different adaptations of the Orpheus myth and, by inviting directors from contrasting disciplines to experiment with the operatic medium, has presented an opportunity to diversify the genre. However, Gluck’s wonderful score for his opera Orpheus and Eurydice, here presented in an edition prepared by Berlioz in 1859, is not done justice by ENO’s latest production. The main fault lies in the lack of co-operation between the dancers and the main actors. Orpheus, played by Alice Coote, did well to hold the audience’s attention, but seemed out of place amongst the nimble dancers. The decision to put the chorus in the pit was ill-judged, and added to the uncomfortable juxtaposition between McGregor’s dancers and the opera singers. This contrast between focusing on the dance movements and hearing the music made the piece lacking in emotion and overly complicated to follow, which was not helped by the lack of symbolism in the design. Despite this, there were some outstanding performances from both the dancers and the opera singers, especially by Eurydice played by Sarah Tynan, but unfortunately the piece did not work as a whole.
The curtain opened to reveal the beautiful image of Eurydice in her patchwork wedding dress – probably Louise Gray’s most successful costume – and proceeds to introduce the audience to the all-consuming love between Orpheus and Eurydice. The story shows a love-sick Orpheus, rendered inconsolable at the death of his wife. Love, played by Soraya Mafi, intervenes and allows Orpheus to pass into the underworld to find her. Wayne McGregor’s production does not show the intensity of their love for one another and as such the first two Acts feel rather lifeless. This was not to do with a lack of skill from any of the performers, but because of an absence of harmony between the dancers, the main singers and the chorus. The sound of the chorus felt different coming from the pit and there was no feeling of growing intensity as Orpheus slowly became more distraught.
The set design throughout the piece was a mixed success. At times, particularly in the first Act, the colossal screen behind the performers had all the theatricality and charisma of a laptop screensaver. In the second Act however, it reacted to Orpheus’s touch and at times felt as if it were responding to the singing chorus. The intensity of the changing screen made up for the absence of the chorus on stage. The changing colours, slowly mutating into a harsh shade of red, mirrored Orpheus’s slow decent into the dark depths of the underworld.
Where Wayne McGregor excelled in his direction was, unsurprisingly, in the choreography of the dances. Although the dancing in Acts One and Two was not astonishing, the opening number to Act Three was truly exceptional. Here was the fluid and passionate contemporary dance the audience was promised. With no singers present in this scene, it allowed full use of the stage, in what was an expressive and moving accompaniment to Gluck’s fabulous opera. The precision of the dancers was wonderful to behold, it worked because they had the space entirely to themselves, here there was no confusion of meaning.
Gluck’s first production of Orpheus and Eurydice was originally composed for a castrato, and then a high tenor. This production, as noted, uses Berlioz’s edition for a Mezzo Soprano. The collaboration of the three female voices was striking and this element of the production was very moving. In Act Four, where Eurydice begs Orpheus to look at her, the combination of their voices is impassioned and desperate. It is even more astounding when love promises to reunite them and the combination of these three female voices was undoubtedly the operatic highlight of this production.
The least well integrated aspect of the performance was the costume design, much of it unnecessarily lurid and lacking in relevance to the rest of the production. With the notable exception of Eurydice’s wedding dress, Orpheus and Eurydice’s wardrobe added nothing to their characters, and Love at one point seemed to be wearing what can only be described as a tin foil hat. Unfortunately, the costumes generally gave little indication of character or emotion and did not contribute to the performance as a whole.
ENO’s aim to involve different types of directors to present their new season is undeniably commendable – however there needed to be more fluidity between dance and opera in order to properly tackle Gluck’s great love story. McGregor’s choreography is certainly very good, but the piece felt disjointed, and at times like two separate pieces, because of this lack of unity. The most effective parts of the production were when the singers and dancers were separated in Acts Three and Four, as there was no confusion of narrative or feeling of disconnect on stage. If you are a contemporary dance enthusiast you will no doubt enjoy this production, but the regular audience member may feel that this piece fails to impress, as an unsuccessful hybrid of opera and dance.