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Orphée

Glass’s Orphée, based on Jean Cocteau’s cinematic retelling of the Orpheus myth, is a parable about the dangers of self-obsession.

Though married to Eurydice, Orphée falls in love with an enigmatic Princess. Obsessed with immortality, Orphée moves between the worlds of the living and the dead, finally becoming immortal when the Princess sacrifices herself for him.

ENO Performance History

2019/20 season

Read the introductory guide to Orphée

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Synopsis

Act I

Scene 1: The Café

The celebrated poet Orphée talks with another poet friend. They observe a group of young people gathered around Cégeste, a young up-and-coming poet. Orphée is fascinated by Cégeste’s patron, the Princess. The drunken Cégeste starts a brawl, which soon spreads throughout the café, resulting in the arrival of the police.

Cégeste manages to escape from the police; he runs outside where he is struck by two motorcyclists. The shocked crowd watches as the motorcyclists enter carrying Cégeste’s lifeless body. The Princess and her chauffeur, Heurtebise, intervene, and the Princess orders Orphée to help them.

Scene 2: The Road

The Princess’s car drives along a desolate country lane. The Princess angrily dismisses Orphée’s many questions. The sound of approaching motorcycles is heard and the two riders enter and collect the body.

Scene 3: The Chalet

The motorcyclists carry Cégeste’s body into the Princess’s chalet. The Princess apparently brings Cégeste back to life and leads him from the room through a mirror. Orphée attempts to follow them but is unable to pass through and, overcome with dizziness, he faints. Heurtebise returns and offers to escort Orphée home.

Scene 4: Orphée’s House

Orphée’s wife, Eurydice, waits anxiously for her missing husband. Her friend, and leader of the women-only League des Femmes, Aglaonice, waits with her, along with the Police Commissaire. A newspaper reporter interrupts their conversation: he wants to talk to Orphée about the accident, but the Commissaire quickly gets rid of him. Finally, Orphée arrives, followed by Heurtebise. He abruptly dismisses both the Commissaire and Aglaonice. Preoccupied, Orphée interrupts his wife when she tries to tell him that she is pregnant, goes abruptly to his bedroom and leaves Eurydice with Heurtebise.

Scene 5: Orphée’s Bedroom

The Princess enters Orphée’s bedroom and observes him sleeping.

Scene 6: Orphée’s Studio

Orphée has become obsessed with listening to the radio. He transcribes the mysterious messages it broadcasts, which he considers to be poetic inspiration. He dismisses Eurydice who turns to Heurtebise for comfort. The Commissaire telephones: he wants to see Orphée in his office.

Scene 7: Commissaire’s Office

The group of young poets and artists from the café, including Orphée’s poet friend and Aglaonice, accuse Orphée of plagiarising Cégeste’s work. The Commissaire reminds them that Orphée is not only a celebrated poet but also a nationally respected figure and dismisses their accusation. They threaten to find their own justice.

Scene 8: The Chase

On his way to the Commissaire’s office, Orphée sees the Princess and tries to follow her. He is spotted by a group of girls who pursue him for his autograph.

Scene 9: Orphée’s House

Orphée comes back having escaped from the autograph hunters. Eurydice is asleep in the bedroom, while Heurtebise is alone in the study. Eurydice, upset by Orphée’s behaviour, decides to visit Aglaonice. As she dashes out of the door, motorcycles are heard once again; Heurtebise runs outside, returning a moment later with the dying Eurydice, whom he places on the bed. The Princess and Cégeste enter the bedroom through the mirror.

Heurtebise tries to tell Orphée that Eurydice is close to death, but the poet ignores him, preferring instead to go on with transcribing the words from the radio. When the messages cease, Orphée finally moves away from the radio and Heurtebise informs him that Eurydice is now dead. However, if he is willing to follow, Orphée will be able to reclaim Eurydice from the Princess, whom Heurtebise reveals to be Death. Orphée and Heurtebise leave together through the mirror.

Interval of 20 minutes

Act II

Reprise

Heurtebise tries to tell Orphée that Eurydice is close to death, but the poet ignores him, preferring instead to go on with transcribing the words from the radio. When the messages cease Orphée finally moves away from the radio and Heurtebise informs him that Eurydice is now dead. However, if he is willing to follow, Orphée will be able to reclaim Eurydice from the Princess, whom Heurtebise reveals to be Death. Orphée and Heurtebise leave together through the mirror.

Scene 1: Journey to the Underworld

On their way to the Underworld, Orphée and Heurtebise encounter various roaming figures unable to cease the habits formed during their lifetimes.

Scene 2: The Trial

The Princess is at a tribunal hearing before a panel of nameless judges for taking Eurydice’s life without authority. Cégeste, the Princess, Orphée, Heurtebise and Eurydice are each questioned, and it emerges that the Princess is in love with Orphée, and Heurtebise with Eurydice. The judges withdraw to consider their verdict.

Scene 3: Orphée and the Princess

Orphée declares his love for the Princess and swears to return to her regardless of what may happen.

Scene 4: The Verdict

The judges deliver their verdict: the Princess is given provisional freedom; Orphée is free on condition he keep silent about all he has witnessed; and Eurydice is allowed to resume her life with Orphée on condition that he never looks directly at her again. A single look, and he will lose her forever. At his own suggestion, Heurtebise is appointed to accompany them.

Scene 5: Return to Orphée’s House

Orphée, Eurydice and Heurtebise leave the Underworld.

Scene 6: Orphée’s House

Orphée and Eurydice discover the impossible reality of complying with the imposed condition.

Scene 7: Orphée’s Studio

To avoid Eurydice, Orphée retreats into his studio where he resumes taking notes from the radio. Eventually, his gaze falls on his wife and she immediately disappears into the Underworld. The mob of angry youngsters confronts Orphée about Cégeste’s death. Heurtebise hands Orphée a revolver, and during a struggle with the Poet, Orphée is shot.

Scene 8: Orphée’s Return 

In the Underworld, Orphée is reunited with the Princess. However, she orders Heurtebise to return Orphée to his life.

Scene 9: Orphée’s Bedroom

Orphée enters through the mirror and finds Eurydice in their bedroom. Orphée resumes his work, seemingly unaware of all that has happened. In the Underworld, the Princess and Heurtebise are led away.