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I arrived to The Mask of Orpheus fifteen minutes late after misreading train timetables. Only after several moments of electronic pulsing and a wordless ‘passing cloud’ did I realise I had unwittingly chosen a surtitle free performance. So, when I learnt in the interval of a made-up ‘Orphic’ language it all felt a little like an elaborate in-joke at my expense. These are the questions indeed.
Birtwistle’s opera is a tottering construction of memory and myth. It feels Joycean and complexity is not only its vehicle but its subject also (a dense, five-page synopsis is testament to the fact). In light of this, Daniel Kramer’s gaudy, overburdened design might work as a visual insurance policy against potential confusion. By way of a fortuitous gift from National Rail’s own brand of confusion, I was able to watch some of the performance from the dress circle and the rest returned to the stalls. So while for some of my neighbours in the latter this design was ‘grotesque’, others at the Coliseum agreed it certainly gave us something to look at. Ultimately it was too much, three iterations of one story – played out concurrently at giddying heights of abstraction – needed focus not distraction. But it demonstrates a more successful attempt than Orpheus in the Underworld to present a welcome face to the ENO’s new audiences. Decidedly not dumbed down, high-camp vibrancy and give a lifeline of visual interest to those of us for whom some moments where comprehensively baffling.
Kramer’s production is not entertaining. But it is not ever boring either; watching it feels like picking at a wound. Each time we witness the same memories played out the screw turns: when Orpheus the Hero hangs himself at the end of Act II, he reawakens after the interval to haunted memories of Eurydice and Aristaeus; each time Orpheus’ children (represented by an unending supply of dolls) are taken from him and violently destroyed it is painfully uncomfortable. Is this viciousness just for the sake of it? It can feel like that at times. Orpheus’ children are blended to a pulpy red gloop in a moment that seems particularly gratuitous, but in fact has horrifying significance when Orpheus reaches for a drink. The cooler ensconced in his Rockstar-pad produces more of the blood red cocktail each Orpheus has been drinking all night. A chilling paradox: his dead children return transubstantiate in the very alcoholism that took them away from Orpheus in the first place.
This show, then, is at its best when it reminds us of the human story at its centre. Matthew Smith’s aerial work as the Heroic Orpheus is mesmerising and, with Alfa Marks, he produces an immensely moving final moment of intimacy as the curtain lowers. Peter Hoare’s voice pushes at its immense limits to contain Orpheus the Man’s pain. Too often however, moments like these are lost in a swamp of glitter and confusion. We’re told eagerly about the however many crystals Daniel Lismore has borrowed for his costume design, but they only add superficially to the story being told. Hoare, crouched over a skull in his climactic scene of self-destruction, has to draw his hammer blows slightly short for fear of damaging a presumably expensive prop. This feels symptomatic of a production that leaves a powerful and impressive mark, but whose priorities are out of order. The greatest applause of the night went to Martyn Brabbins, his orchestra and Birtwistle’s exhilarating music.
With only thirty seconds of catharsis offered by the embracing Orpheus and Eurydice at the end of the performance, I felt it was a significant achievement to have traversed Harrison Birtwistle’s three-and-a-half-hour epic myth that is The Mask of Orpheus. This trying but inspired production pays homage to Birtwistle, its cyclical structure is stylishly pulled off in what has, so far, been the most successful production in this season at ENO. The constantly changing and recurring opulent costumes by Daniel Lismore and the frenzied but poignant projections by lighting and video designer Peter Mumford, combine entrancingly with Birtwistle’s score. This is complemented by heart stopping performances from the entire cast, with outstanding operatic performances from Orpheus the Man (Peter Hoare) and Eurydice the Woman (Marta Fontanals-Simmons), alongside awe-inspiring dancing from Orpheus the Hero (Matthew Smith) and Eurydice the Hero (Alfa Marks). Although the visual imagery was fabulous, I could not help but feel that this was a piece of art rather than an opera. Although The Mask of Orpheus attracted a far younger (and trendier) audience than usual, it still felt inaccessible and above all self-indulgent. However, although the production was complicated and extravagant, reflecting the demands that this opera makes on its audience, the recurring moments of pain and joy made for a surprisingly hard-hitting piece.
The Mask of Orpheus is unlike any other adaptation of the Orpheus myth. Birtwistle wanted a piece that symbolised the fickle nature of mythology, deciding to portray multiple variations of Orpheus and Eurydice all at once, united in a cyclical adventure of love, loss, and revenge. The piece begins with the first story, where Orpheus-the-Man is reborn, he is reminded of his love for Eurydice, and goes to find her in the underworld. The second story sweeps the stage with the loveless and spiteful marriage between the protagonists, as Eurydice-the-Myth tackles Orpheus-the-Myth’s abusive nature. The final couple, Orpheus and Eurydice the heroes to be, glide across the stage in a tender rhythmic dance, in a performance that radiates affection and lust. All three performances happen simultaneously, in addition to several prominent subplots that are interwoven together through the score. The multifaceted style of the piece means there is no plot, it is all non-linear. If your main attraction to opera is drama you will not find it here, but although at points The Mask of Orpheus feels pretentious, it is an invigorating exploration of the extra-ordinary, of memory, of the human condition.
The skill needed to successfully pull off a production of this magnitude is staggering, and the performers do this spectacularly. Peter Hoare brings the broken and pain-ridden Orpheus to life, the quality of his voice being tentative and yet resilient. He is paired beautifully with Marta Fontanals-Simmons, whose warm rich voice is only upstaged by her performance as a whole, which has an irresistible air of dark sensuality. The highlight of the performances however were undoubtedly Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks, whose phenomenal movement to Barnaby Booth’s choreography was simply entrancing. The different levels of movement in this performance lent itself to Birtwistle’s score. Changes in the music often helped draw the eye to a particular story, the connection between the music and the performances was very impressive, especially for a modern opera.
No discussion of this piece would be complete without saying more about the costume designer Daniel Lismore’s weird, wonderful and nightmarish vision for this piece. The reconciliation between the classical imagery and the outrageous art school quality of Lismore’s design, delivered the magical surrealism that complemented Birtwistle’s music. One cannot help but think, however, that some of the decoration was unnecessary. Although it added to the dreamlike effect, the use of 400,000 Swarovski crystals made me wonder whether there might be cleverer ways of displaying godly nobility. On the whole, however, the costumes added a significant amount to my enjoyment of the piece and were a key part of the visual language of the performance.
Lizzie Clachan’s set for The Mask of Orpheus has been her most successful design yet for this season at ENO. The contrast between the Art Deco plain set at the beginning and what the set slowly became was surreal. The glass ‘prison’ surrounded by stairs, in combination with Peter Mumford’s projections, created a colourful mind-bending reality. It gave off a familiar but somehow disturbing aura, and really immersed the audience in the dream world of the performers.
Unfortunately, I found a great many aspects of the piece pretentious and inaccessible. This is not solely concerned with ENO’s production, but the subject of the piece itself and the type of opera that Birtwistle wrote. It is hard to connect with, and although this is no doubt part of the point, many people might feel estranged by the over-extravagant opulence and the self-indulgent character of the piece. Having said this, the moments of the opera where meaning is truly divulged are breathtaking. As the curtain closed, the utterly tranquil heroes Orpheus and Eurydice embraced, slowly twirling above in soft light, while confetti fell from above. It is worth seeing The Mask of Orpheus just for this moment of pure understanding and love.