Sunday, 26 January 2020

Series, parallels: ENO's Orpheus season and more besides

Across the last few months of 2019, English National Opera ran a 'season within a season': four operas all based on the Orpheus myth. Niche, you might think, but arguably ENO were spoilt for choice: a quick scan of the oracle (Delphipedia?) turns up a list of over 70 operas on the subject.

Obviously, it's taken me longer than I would've liked to get round to writing this. To prolific opera-goers, the productions probably now feel as ancient as the myth itself. But I confess that even at the time, I deliberately held back from writing about the performances as they went along because, to my mind, they were a kind of 'whole', and I was attracted to the idea of considering them together.

Most of the coverage seemed to be opera by opera, understandably so: the critics have to report back to the public there and then. Also, while they share the root source, the operas chosen are completely unconnected works: in chronological order (of composition and opening night), Gluck's 'Orpheus and Eurydice', Offenbach's 'Orpheus in the Underworld', Birtwhistle's 'The Mask of Orpheus' and Glass's 'Orphée'.


I was still mildly surprised in the aftermath of the series that I only came across one response that brought the four together. (Even in that instance, it was four separate reviews stitched together into a somewhat mean-spirited whole. I feel that, however critical a piece, it is always possible to tell if the writer is fundamentally kind or unkind, and whether or not they derive more satisfaction from the artform itself, or from using their keyboard as a weapon. If you're desperate to seek the feature out, I daresay you'll find it.)

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I understand the series was the brainchild of ENO's soon-to-be-former artistic director, Daniel Kramer (which, let's face it, will have put some commentators off from the outset). Drawn as I am to these kinds of sequences and connections, I can see the idea's logic and appeal. There's a single hook but almost infinite possibilities. The 'original' myth is about a poet-singer-storyteller of almost supernatural gifts, yet it has no fixed or definitive version. At the most crucial moment of his life, as his resurrected wife begs for an explanation of his behaviour, the words Orpheus needs are denied him. No wonder so many composers have dusted the couple down and revisited their story. There's a satisfying symmetry to the way that the root myth is so imperfectly told and re-told, alongside four utterly different operatic interpretations that make further play with storytelling in themselves.

Another, possibly controversial, layer was added by Kramer's decisions about who should tell these stories. He decided to direct the Birtwhistle revival, arguably the biggest headline-grabber of the group, himself. As for the rest - I think it's safe to say that none of these people would have delivered anything vaguely resembling a 'traditional' or straightforward adaptation. Two are from altogether different disciplines: choreographer Wayne McGregor directed the Gluck and theatre director Emma Rice tackled the Offenbach. Netia Jones, in charge of the Glass, is steeped in opera and classical music, but with a signature style involving video projection and various cinematic techniques. (Her staging of Zender's 'Winterreise' arrangement with Ian Bostridge and Britten Sinfonia, 'The Dark Mirror', was an astonishing achievement.)

Personally, I didn't have any problems with this approach (reservations about one of the productions notwithstanding - see below) as it enhanced another level of symmetry/unity in the series. In the same way that the Orpheus story is concerned with how two worlds - gods & heaven versus humans & earth - do or do not interact, suspending Eurydice between two planes of existence... so we had treatments that suspended us between live opera and these other worlds of ballet, modern dance / cabaret, drama and cinema. I felt this made each evening exciting and unpredictable, erasing the risk of potential audience fatigue with returning to the same plot.

As I said, I think one of the pieces ultimately misfired. In Offenbach's operetta 'Orpheus in the Underworld', O & E are an unhappy couple, both on their worst behaviour and desperate to be rid of each other. Whatever one thinks of her eventual fate (priestess to Bacchus on Jupiter's orders), Eurydice as a character drives much of the action, a full-on (anti-?)heroine, finding the men and gods around her tedious and frustrating. Rice adds a tragic backstory during the overture for the couple (the loss of their child, acted in dumb show) to provide a psychological grounding for the failure of the marriage. Then - after a more conventionally riotous first half - delivers on the ominous opening by ramping up the sexual objectification of Eurydice as the gods' plaything and suggesting that a reunion between O & E is thwarted through E essentially being kidnapped as an underworld slave.

Rice explains all of this in an interview in the programme for the show, leading to an (intentionally?) comic anecdote where - after making so many cuts and changes to fit her reading - she is asked by Kramer to put some of the actual music back in. I take on board her points about the humour of the time not working now, and modern audiences needing to 'care' about the protagonists. But here I think the decisions derailed the intent. For example, I don't think making Eurydice an angel or a victim gives the character any of her agency back. By acknowledging her wilful, even unlikable traits, the operetta simply takes it as read that she is as much a focus for our attention as Orpheus, and as worthy of whatever barbs the piece can throw at her. She can give as good as she gets, without the need of a tragedy in her background to conveniently explain it away.


(Mary Bevan as Eurydice. No photo credit.)

This attempt to 'retrofit' the Gluck, however, couldn't dampen my enjoyment of the performances. As ever, the ENO Chorus flooded the stage with verve and personality, voices always married to individual acting and movement - whether sheep or show-girls! Mary Bevan was an astonishingly vivid Eurydice, unafraid to bring out and fully embrace the contradictions and complications of the role, and Alex Otterburn owned the stage as a strutting Pluto.

I actually felt the other three operas achieved lift-off. Gluck's 'Orpheus and Eurydice' features only three soloist roles (the couple, plus Love) and chorus. McGregor took the decision to conceal the Chorus, bringing dancers onstage in their place. As the paragraph above implies, I'm normally the first person who wants to see the Chorus doing their thing, so I was particularly struck by how effective I found this approach. In a kind of stasis between opera and ballet, the dancers were able to express what I could hear the Chorus singing, and also provide a framework for the three leads to bring a kind of stylised movement to underpin their emotional expressions. Alice Coote - a superb actor-singer who, in recital, carves three-dimensional characters out of one song after another - gave us a heartrendingly powerful Orpheus, communicating his grief literally from head to toe.

'The Mask of Orpheus' arrives with a built-in, ready-to-eat level of insanity, making the re-telling of Orpheus's myth not just the subject, but also the format of the opera. Not only are the scenes fragmented, the roles are too, with Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus (Eurydice's would-be lover) each represented by three performers (as person, myth and hero). Mixing acoustic and electronic instruments - and needing two conductors - everything about the production screamed sensory overload. Working with costume designer Daniel Lismore, Kramer had the stage, and people on it, explode with colour. There was, unapologetically, too much to look at - just focusing on the rope-dancers alone could take you away from the singers for too long.

I would need to see this more than once to fully make sense of it (and I'm aware I may never get the chance). I think many were nonplussed by it. But given Birtwhistle's aim to try and depict various angles on the myth at once - I suppose a kind of cubist approach to the opera - I think the riot of simultaneous action is true to that aim, in a way that Rice's 'overlay' of her modern response to Offenbach was not. A huge factor for me was the casting of Peter Hoare as the 'human' Orpheus. He's one of my very favourite singers, not least because of his willingness to immerse himself in challenging characters and use the timbre of his tenor as a kind of weapon, salve one minute, scalpel the next.

My favourite of the four was almost certainly 'Orphée' - perhaps no surprise given my love of Philip Glass's music and my sense of anticipation for how Netia Jones would realise the action. As the opera is so closely based on the Jean Cocteau film 'Orphée' (more symmetry), Jones's system of door-like screens - precision-tooled black and white images ranging from filmed backgrounds to real-time alternative viewpoints of the onstage action - builds on the mirror/negative motifs of the film. A sleek, monochrome set and sympathetic, largely monochrome costume design made me feel like I was watching a noir masterpiece come to life visually as well as musically. Here, O & E are almost pawns in a larger game, subject to the manoeuvres of Death's agent - Jennifer France in imperious femme fatale mode - and her driver, Heurtebise, sang movingly by Nicky Spence. But as the supernatural beings' nature is revealed, their entanglement with the central couple becomes as deadly to them as to their human counterparts.


(This and the following image: Jennifer France in 'Orphée'. Photos by Catherine Ashmore.)

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Each opera could of course be experienced as a stand-alone production, and were no doubt actively intended as such. But by the time I saw 'Orphée', I was fully alive to the cumulative power of the enterprise. As I saw each Orpheus opera, my anticipation was heightened by wondering what the next interpretation would be like.

I also enjoyed the way that, despite representing four very different artistic visions, the series gave you connections if you were inclined to find them. Three examples:

  • The casting of Sarah Tynan as two Eurydices, in the Gluck and Glass: not only did this demonstrate her vocal versatility within such vastly different musical styles, but the only callback was simply realising it was the same person: both exquisitely sensitive portrayals, but at no point in the Glass performance did I think of the Gluck version.
  • I was intrigued by how the McGregor and Jones treatments exploited colour versus black and white to suggest opposing physical or mental states.
  • All four productions shared the same set designer, Lizzie Clachan, who - possibly against all odds - lends the sequence some visual harmony: looking back at the production galleries, you can see the gridlines, careful division of spaces, even boxes and cages, that range from giving 'Orphee' its cool, clinical flair to imposing some kind of order, after a fashion, on 'Mask of Orpheus'.


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I have no idea how well the Orpheus series ultimately did, and what the detailed stats might be - for example, do ENO have any feedback about how many punters committed to all four operas, or did people just dip in according to the composers they favoured...? I would love to know, as going to see the whole 'quartet' made me think about series, seasons, sequences ... and how effective they can be.

One thing that slightly surprised me was how the Orpheus series was advertised. Of course, there was publicity material and website content about the operas as a group, but I don't ever recall seeing, for example, a poster focusing on the 'set of 4'. By contrast, I do remember seeing ENO's normal season poster in their usual house style, listing all the operas in the season chronologically. This had the slightly surreal effect of placing 'The Mikado' between 'The Mask of Orpheus' and 'Orphée', conjuring up a new version of the G&S crowdpleaser featuring Nanki-Poo heading down into Hades to fetch Yum-Yum.

I'm fascinated by brand / image and graphic design in this sphere, possibly to geek level. Of course, 'brand' means much more than just logos and posters - it's a whole system of how an organisation presents itself - but the in-your-face visuals are very much the entry point for a lot of people. Many opera houses - along with perhaps fewer theatres, but London examples would include The Old Vic and National Theatre - seem to give their house style absolute rule.

I'm struck every time I go up into the amphitheatre corridor at the Royal Opera House, which now displays posters from its archives. It used to be a bespoke design for every single production, it seems, but now every poster 'looks' the same: different images, of course, but uniform typeface throughout. The current style is very elegant, in my view - but it's beauty within, rather than without, restrictions, and part of me pines for the era when they just went with the immediate concept.

But a recent example from Opera North lingers in my memory. I wrote at the time about seeing their mini-season of six short operas, the 'Little Greats'. Opera North have an extremely identifiable house style, too: instantly recognisable logo, and a font that carries through all their posters and programmes. (In a link to the subtle set consistencies in the Orpheus operas, I also feel that Opera North's brand definitely contributes to the onstage aesthetic. Whether through necessity - budget, having to tour productions - or philosophy, Opera North's stagings almost always seem to me uncluttered, quite cinematic, with use of onstage space and darkness to give a self-contained, intense feel. In the recent production of 'The Greek Passion', a slogan quoting from the opera appeared above the chorus; it was in the correct font - as seen in this production still by Tristram Kenton.)



But keeping every single aspect of their style and typography intact, Opera North still called the season 'The Little Greats', at every opportunity. (Theature pic above by me.) Special materials - posters, booklets - all emphasised the 'wholeness' of the series, even though - the inclusion of traditional bedfellows 'Cavelleria rusticana' / 'Pagliacci' notwithstanding - the six operas had nothing to do with each other. That said, again like the Orpheus series, connections were there to be discovered.

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I think mini-sequences and seasons within seasons have the potential to be a really useful way to keep bringing people to opera, in particular. In an age when certain folk are very quick to talk about 'short attention spans' and 'dumbing down', I'm fascinated by the apparent resurgence - particularly in cinema and TV - of enthusiasm for the epic. People are quite happy to follow event television series over 7 years and 80 episodes, or follow a film franchise over 20 movies. Cue the usual cry: 'But classical music / opera is different!' Well... is it really? Or if it is, does it need to be?

'Ring' cycles seem to me to be increasing in frequency. Seasoned experts will tell me if I'm wrong about this or not, but I feel so spoilt for productions recently that I'm vaguely - vaguely - ok with the fact I'm going to have to sit the next London one out. Surely for fans, the scale is in itself one of the most appealing things about the cycle: not just the gargantuan running time, but also the hooks, the recurrences of the leitmotifs that reward the keen listener who starts at the beginning and keeps on going.

Whether it's the 'collecting' gene, or our inner detectives, or our sense of order and need for systems... I think looking for threads connecting seemingly disparate events has an innate appeal for the vast majority of us. Programming to this could yield fascinating results.

As an amateur and enthusiast who cannot possibly monitor every opera house worldwide, I'm sure many readers would be able to point lots of examples out to me already. Off the top of my head, I can think of the superb ROH production of 'Cav'/'Pag' by Damiano Michieletto which places the events of both operas in the same village. Welsh National Opera staged a Figaro trilogy, performing the Rossini and Mozart classics alongside the brand new 'Figaro Gets a Divorce', by Elena Langer and David Pountney.

And La Monnaie / De Munt, the opera house in Brussels, Belgium, is just about to stage the three Mozart / Da Ponte operas ('Marriage of Figaro', 'Cosi fan tutte' and 'Don Giovanni') as an interdependent trilogy taking place in the same apartment building - how I'd love to see that!

More - literally! - of this sort of thing.

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