Saturday 19 October 2019

The Mask of Orpheus at ENO, or, Left Cold

This is an opera with a considerable reputation, despite it seems not having been staged since its original premiere at the Coliseum in 1986. Although I didn't see it then, and will see pretty much anything once, I hadn't booked in advance because (like too many new productions at both London houses this season) there were no Saturday or Sunday performances scheduled. However, I happened to hear a segment discussing the work on Radio 3's Music Matters last weekend, and a window opened up for me to go last night, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I'm afraid the evening left me cold.

The opera's subject is the Orpheus myth, indeed this staging is part of a four work series on the myth at ENO. I should perhaps preface what follows by saying this is a myth that has never particularly compelled me as a story - despite several viewings I haven't managed to love the Gluck version (a repertory staple) and for me the strength of the most recent reimagining (the musical Hadestown) was its take on the relationship between Hades and Persephone. This version did not make me change my mind.

The approach of Harrison Birtwistle and librettist Peter Zinovieff is far from straightforward. If you buy the programme you will find that the narrative includes 3 scenes, 17 arches, 8 episodes, 3 passing clouds and 3 (typos notwithstanding) allegorical flowers. Further, there are three people representing Orpheus and Eurydice who are, the programme explains, X as Man/Woman, X as Myth, X as Hero/Heroine-to-become. While it was possible to link synopsis text to events on stage, I rarely found
the staging (or indeed the text) clear about the distinctions between the three versions, nor was the staging clear enough as to which of them we are dealing with at any particular moment or how the three are connected. The synopsis text is so dense that I did not find it possible to get round that by remembering the detail of the description. A gentleman in front of me chose to keep the programme book open while following the stage action but I rejected this recourse, though the lighting is such that at least in the Balcony it is probably manageable most of the time. It's my view that if a staged work cannot be made comprehensible purely via the action on stage then it has missed the point (that work or this staging are not wholly confident on this point is indicated by a couple of occasions when the subtitles include explanatory sentences).

Loosely speaking, as it seemed to me, Act 1 presents us with various fragments from Orpheus and Eurydice's life, some of which like Orpheus's drinking problem only became clear to me when I moved on to the synopsis of Act 2 at the interval. The second Act follows Orpheus's journey through the seventeen arches of hell (possibly this has some mythological basis to it - it isn't a version of the story that I've run across before). The third act was to my eyes and ears mostly a repetition of fragments from Acts 1 and 2 until we do finally arrive at a conclusion which clearly intends to suggest some kind of transformation - the synopsis at this point states "Orpheus and Eurydice form a new language, a new species, a new way of being". I fear for me neither staging nor music was able to find the kind of freshness or transcendence of what had preceded those last few minutes to convince me of that transformation.

The biggest problem with all of this is that it is dramatically inert. Take the central issues of the Orpheus and Eurydice relationship as here presented - a marriage of two people who aren't in love, Orpheus's drinking, Eurydice's infidelity. In theory plenty of material to lend dramatic punch. But the problem is that all these things are divorced from any sense of the whys - why are they getting married if they're not in love - there's no evidence that I can see of anybody forcing them to do so. What is it about the husband she's married for these unclear reasons that lead Eurydice to infidelity - perhaps the drinking but if so not sufficiently established? Why indeed is Orpheus drinking? A further effect of the neglect of motive is to render these characters types rather than these particular people - it's not this specific marriage unhappy for these reasons, but a generic unhappy marriage of the sort I have seen before. In sum the work never succeeded in making me care about what happened to any of the three versions of the characters on stage.

Further problems arise from the libretto and the way Birtwistle chooses to set it, or indeed not to set it. I really disliked Zinovieff's text which struck me as overblown - sarcastic responses like "oh really" and "do you?" came into my mind regularly as it proceeded. It doesn't stand up well to the repetition required of it - in particular the opaque description of the Seventeen Arches which had thoroughly outstayed its welcome by Act 3. While the occasional passage soars musically (usually via a female voice), much of Birtwistle's setting sounded declamatory to me, failing to achieve the greater emotional punch from the particular marriage of these words and this music which is one of the most powerful things opera at its finest can do. Moreover, far too often the text seemed to be just being spoken. I would be interested to know if the manner of delivery is prescribed in the libretto - to my ear it lacked nuance. The opening litany of other mythological figures cried out for more mystery, the description of the arches for more range, especially in the Act 3 repetitions.

The orchestral sound world is not off-putting but I didn't find it very compelling either. In the latter part of Act 2 and much of Act 3 it seemed often ineffectually loud - the first such climax is quite powerful but as with repetition elsewhere the effect wears off. And that's fundamentally the issue across the piece, at least to my ears I didn't find the musical material interesting enough to sustain the amount of repetition Birtwistle's approach requires. The electronic music meanwhile brought to mind the BBC Radiophonic Workshop soundtracks to Doctor Who episodes (though this may also have been a consequence of director Daniel Kramer's monster audition piece which crops up in Act 3) - again the marriage of electronic music to drama here doesn't achieve an effect comparable to the best of those works. Perhaps the finest musical moments come at the very end when things do still both musically and on stage and you can hear Birtwistle reaching for a sense of transformation but I'm afraid I found myself making comparison to the extraordinary ending of Messiaen's St Francois, premiered it's interesting to note only a few years before this, also striving to represent new life and doing so overwhelmingly. All that said the music is outstandingly performed by an augmented ENO Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw hold it all together finely though they can't do much about the dramatic inertness.

I'd heard grim reports from family members regarding other stagings by ENO's recently departed artistic director Kramer. This effort didn't enrage me, but didn't make for compelling viewing either. We are in a rather spare modernist space with, initially, two leather couches and a futon on a slightly raised central dais. To the right back is a white-tiled bathroom - the bath I think was supposed to represent the various Pools referred to in the synopsis - at any rate people climb in and out of it rather too often. To the left a staircase curves at right angles round a clear-walled box which seems to be some sort of garden. The modern visual style didn't marry well with either the mythological world nor the attempted epic quality of the text. I felt I had seen this sort of environment often before, and neither Kramer nor set designer Lizzie Clachan managed to make it fresh. The shortcomings are particularly evident in Act 2. As already noted I wasn't wowed by the textual descriptions of the Arches but they do seem made for grand visual representation - beyond the costumes, discussed below, little is in evidence.

Movement is also problematic. The repetition and the three duos perhaps inevitably generate a lot of wandering around but I rarely found it dramatically or emotionally effective - people keep repeating movement which had not struck home to begin with. Kramer also makes a lot of use of aerials - the physical effort is as always with this kind of thing impressive but the overall effect rarely beguiles (again the very end is an exception) compared to say their recent use in the Bridge's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Maybe for fear that the repetition might bore Kramer has thrown a lot of money (or at least a lot of support in kind in the case of the production's Exclusive Crystal Partner Swarovski) at Daniel Lismore's costumes. They sparkle, they're over-elaborate, and performers are too often dressing and undressing. My main reaction to the crystals was to wonder why these people had such elaborate outfits. I also found myself recalling the furore when Zandra Rhodes designed costumes for an Aida at ENO back in 2007 - I actually liked the opulence of those costumes (indeed I liked that production) and I thought they chimed with the epic quality of that story much better than Swarovski does here. In sum, I've seen a lot more opera productions which attained a more epic feel - most versions of Act 3, Scene 5 of Die Meistersinger for a start.

One other element to mention is the Passing Clouds and Allegorical Flowers which are staged in a lightbox trundled slowly across the stage on each occasion and featuring choreography by Barnaby Booth which on most of the slow progresses outstayed its welcome.

I haven't yet discussed the singing and I think that's because the singers as singers felt subordinate to spoken text, orchestral surroundings and the staging. Peter Hoare as Orpheus the Man is plainly the central role and delivers it with great stamina. Claron McFadden cuts through the sound world periodically and it's an impressive effect but like others, and this is the fault of the score, loses punch through repetition. The rest of the ensemble deliver what the score apparently asks of them with total commitment but this is not a work of great vocal effects.

This was my fourth Birtwistle opera. I previously saw The Minotaur at the Royal Opera, and semi-stagings of Yan Tan Tethera and Gawain at the Barbican in a mini-Birtwistle festival back in 2014. Of the three the only one that I really liked was Yan Tan Tethera which I remember gripping and moving me - if only a company would give us a full staging of that. In advance of this performance I hoped it would be one of those revelatory occasions where you come out wondering why on earth a work has disappeared into obscurity. I'm afraid my conclusion was the opposite - it no longer surprises me that the work has not been staged since the premiere. I didn't hate this evening, but it didn't move me, and in Act 3 I did get bored. I shall be surprised if this revival restores the work to a regular place in the repertory. Now that it's been done, I should like to nominate another ENO premiere of slightly later date for revival - Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens (which I have been asking for in my regular end of year Highs and Lows posts for some time) - also unstaged so far as I know since its 1990 premiere and, on the basis of my recollections of those performances, more worthy of rediscovery than this. This is a curiosity with points of interest unlikely to come round again soon, but even so I can't say that it's a must see even if you missed it first time round.

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