I’m not intimidated by opera. I watch too much of it for that but these are the best seats I’ve ever had. For once I’m not craning my neck or thinking about the ache in my feet. I can concentrate and with this sublime opera, that is intimidating indeed. Orphée, one of four interpretations of Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice, showing at the English National Opera this season, revels in a tantalising complexity that ensnares the audience wholly.
Philip Glass’ libretto is an adaption of Jean Cocteau’s 1950’s film, Orphée, and Cocteau’s influence shines through this narrative-driven and striking opera. The jaunty, modernist costumes play, as Cocteau did, with silhouette and line. Slices of pink and red cut through the monochrome until they explode into a nauseating floral-patterned domesticity that seeps from Eurydice, played by the excellent Sarah Tynan. She is a woman sidelined and ignored, even on her deathbed, by the fading star of Orphée, the poet ‘more than a man’.
Orpheus’ betrayal of Eurydice, looking back as he leaves the underworld to check that she is with him and thereby losing her to the underworld forever, is reinvented not as an act of love and desperation but one of exasperation. Perhaps the only false note in this production (and I’m not talking about the singing) is Orphée’s suggestion that he ‘would follow her into hell’ to which Nicky Spence’s full-voiced Heurtebise retorts ‘you don’t have to go quite so far’. This isn’t an opera about love. This is an opera about the immortalisation of a poet that apotheosises in its reincarnation.
The opera sees death as a reflection of life; literally, the underworld is reached through a mirror. Lizzie Clachan’s bright sets are repeated back on themselves in morbid shades of grey and even bureaucracy has its deathly counterpart. The mirrored binary of death and life is made multi-faceted by video projections of the mirror’s perspective, in turn a reinterpretation of Cocteau’s film. The same but different; each line, each phrase, set, costume is a reflection and refraction of a version that has come before, sliced fragments deliciously patch-worked together.
Glass’ music makes space for the enormity of the production with discordant softness that unexpectedly breaks loose into unnerving cacophony and urgently repeated, jarring trills. Opera, video, art and poetry are fused together by Netia Jones (director, costume designer and video designer), who has created ‘a mirror facing a mirror’, a kaleidoscope of dancing references, each one reflected again, to make new the old. I can’t promise to have seen or understood everything that happened on that constantly shifting stage, but what I did spoke of a wealth of knowledge that belies the neat package of this fast-moving production.
GUEST REVIEWER: Alexandra Blanchard
PHOTOS: Catherine Ashmore