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Reviews

21 Oct 2019

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera

A review by Mark Berry

Above: William Morgan, Peter Hoare, Simon Wilding, David Ireland

Photo credit: Alastair Muir

 

In the beginning, then, was Orpheus, his myth repeated, elaborated upon, throughout Western musical tradition, and especially throughout Western operatic tradition. It is surely no coincidence that it was with this monumental work that Birtwistle sought his most radical extension yet of that line. He wanted, he said, ‘to invent [my italics] a formalism which does not rely on tradition in the way that Punch and Judy, my first opera, relied on tradition. There I used forms such as the chorale, toccata and gavotte. I injected them into my work just as Berg injected formal ideas into Wozzeck. In The Mask of Orpheus, I didn’t want to hark back any more; I wanted to create a formal world that was utterly new.’

Expectations could not have been higher. For some, yours truly included, this was a moment for which we had been waiting the whole of our musical lives. From a career strewn with masterpieces, here came at last a second staging of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus: heard only once complete, in concert, since its 1986 premiere, and never since seen in the theatre. I had previously only managed to hear a single act, in concert, at the Proms : an unforgettable experience that only increased my hunger to hear - and to see - more. Present at that first, ENO performance, Alfred Brendel extolled The Mask of Orpheus as the first English musical masterpiece since Purcell. Many will find that view a touch harsh on some music and composers - even assuming Handel’s exclusion - intervening. Be that as it may, no one with any serious interest in music or opera, indeed no one with a passing interest, yet possessed of half an ear and a little curiosity, would deny the work’s stature.

Katie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw, Katie Coventry.jpgKatie Stevenson, Charlotte Shaw, Katie Coventry. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

Musical values were high, as they would have to be: there is no more point putting on Birtwistle with musicians unequal to its challenges than there is Stockhausen. That excellence we heard from ENO forces should nevertheless not be taken for granted. The conflict between rational and irrational, between what Orpheus must do to win back Eurydice and what his urge to act as a human being, a conflict as old as that between Apollo and Dionysus and in many respects to be identified therewith, lies at the heart of this work. The climax to the second act, indeed the whole of that extraordinary structure of recollective arches, not only retains its enormous, truly post-Wagnerian power; it seems to increase with every hearing. This proved no exception. One was truly left reeling then - and not only then - at least insofar as one could separate the musical performance from its sadly inadequate scenic realisation, on which more shortly.

Moreover, if that conflict between the demands of reason and those of emotion lies at the work’s dramatic heart, so too does the variety of ways in which its participants, us included, might look at, experience, reflect upon that conflict, not least through time, ours and the characters’ (broadly speaking, as human, myth, and hero, though never in linear fashion, and just as much musically - lyrically and formally - as verbally and scenically). In a sense, this is true of all opera; ‘all opera is Orpheus’. But it is perhaps more so here, more overtly so, more strenuously. Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw, assisted by Adam Hickox, did a superlative job of enabling the excellent orchestra, chorus, and cast to express what they could of this, Peter Hoare a fascinatingly flawed, multifariously tragic Orpheus the Man, Marta Fontanals-Simmons an alluring, inscrutable, even alluringly inscrutable Eurydice the Woman, ably supported by penetrating, intelligently contrasted performances from Daniel Norman and Claire-Barnett Jones as their mythical counterparts. James Cleverton as Aristaeus and Claron McFadden as the extraordinary Oracle of the Dead also stood out dramatically, but there was nothing approaching a weak link to the cast. Barry Anderson’s electronic realisation, with sound design by Ian Dearden, proved as liminally dramatic in its way as Stockhausen, as pregnant with dramatic purpose as an ‘interlude’ in Wagner.

Claire Barnett-Jones.jpg Claire Barnett-Jones. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

If only Daniel Kramer’s bizarre, ultimately vacuous production had been remotely equal to its task. Where the work speaks of and with starkness and complexity, Kramer seemingly mistook the latter for a gaudy variety show, validated by inclusion of more and more unconnected - with each other, let alone with the work - acts. This was not the idea of the circus, nor indeed the idea of anything else; it was a hideous and, doubtless, highly expensive mess. Occasionally, the possibility of recollection, of memory, even of dream sequence, asserted itself, more by default than anything else. For the most part, we suffered an absurd - never, alas, absurdist - display of exaggerated, ‘saucy’, latex-clad nurses and medical equipment; of supposedly shocking, yet actually deeply tedious, sexual acts; of people - often entirely unclear who they were, and to what end - emerging and sinking into bathtubs; of highly skilled acrobats (for the opera’s mime action) removing and replacing their clothes, before resuming their distracting activity; of general hyperactivity that not once seemed to enquire what it, let alone of anything else, might be for, let alone of whether its seemingly hapless orientalism might prove a tad problematical to some. It was unclear that the ‘concept’, if one may call it that, was anything more than an ageing rock musician - we see the platinum discs on the wall - Orpheus, holed up in his extravagantly equipped hotel room, having a bad trip. And even that was perhaps to dignify it.

Was this, perhaps, opera for a world with its eyes - and possibly ears - on several screens at once, craving instant diversion rather than satisfaction? Was there even something of the postdramatic to it? I can see that the argument might be made, but frankly, in this particular case, I think not; or if it is, then there really ought to be more to it than this. Constant changing of the emperor’s still newer, still more sparkly, clothes - ‘by artist, campaigner and designer Daniel Lismore, described by Vogue as “England’s most outrageous dresser”’ - was not enough, never nearly enough. Nor was there any sign of irony, of critique, of anything more than camp excess really - which is not to deny the excellent artistry of those on stage, doing what they could. Carry on Birtwistle, then? It just about qualifies as a point of view, I suppose; or, better, as the slender basis for one. I cannot help but think that it would have been better left on the shelf, along with the rest of this wasteful production: a non-ironic cross between Robert Lepage and Liberace.

Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks.jpg Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks. Photo credit: Alastair Muir.

The absurdity might have worked; all manner of things might have worked; however, in the absence of a connecting pair of ears, let alone anything between them, this was doomed to remain an endless parade - in a decidedly non-Birtwistle sense - of effortful vulgarity on- and offstage, as idiotic as it was wasteful. Wherever one looked, one was assailed with advertisements for a crystal company to which I shall refrain from granting further publicity. Nothing could have lain further from the essence of Birtwistle’s score, nor indeed from Peter Zinovieff’s libretto. Yet such contradiction was not fruitful; nor even, so it seemed, intentional. If anything, it simply suggested a director out of his depth - and not even in the opera’s shallows. The true tragedy, of course, lies in the damage this may do to prospects for a third production, even for a further concert performance. Not for the first time, alas, ENO has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mark Berry

Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Orpheus the Man - Peter Hoare; Orpheus the Myth, Hades - Daniel Norman; Orpheus the Hero - Matthew Smith; Eurydice the Woman - Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Eurydice the Myth, Persephone - Claire Barnett-Jones; Eurydice the Hero - Alfa Marks; Aristaeus the Man - James Cleverton; Aristaeus the Myth, Charon - Simon Bailey; Aristaeus the Hero - Leo Hedman; The Oracle of the Dead, Hecate - Claron McFadden; The Caller - Robert Hayward; First Priest, Judge of the Dead - William Morgan; Second Priest, Judge of the Dead - David Ireland; Third Priest, Judge of the Dead - Simon Wilding; First Woman, Fury 1 - Charlotte Straw; Second Woman, Fury 2 - Katie Coventry; Third Woman, Fury 3 - Katie Stevenson; Dancers - Joan Aguila-Cuevas, Sam Ford, Ripp Greatbatch, Stefano de Luca. Director - Daniel Kramer; Set designs - Lizzie Clachan; Costumes - Daniel Lismore; Lighting, Video - Peter Mumford; Choreography - Barnaby Booth; Sound design - Ian Dearden. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus masters - James Henshaw, Mark Biggins), Orchestra of the English National Opera/Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw (conductors).

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Friday 18th October 2019.

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