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Reviews

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Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: ENO, directed/choreographed by Wayne McGregor

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sarah Tynan (Eurydice), Soraya Mafi (Love) and Alice Coote (Orpheus).

Photo credit: Donald Cooper

 

First up is Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, in neither its 1762 Viennese nor 1774 Parisian manifestations, but rather in Hector Berlioz’s 1866 rearrangement, in which the French composer amalgamated, re-orchestrated and re-wrote the part of Orpheus for mezzo-soprano (specifically, for Pauline Viardot-Garcia).

But, in fact, what ENO really offers is not Gluck’s opera, but director-choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance-opera. Of course, dance is integral to Gluck’s opera and aesthetic. One critic at the first performance of Orpheus praised the dancer-choreographer Gasparo Angiolini for ‘uniting choreography with the choruses and the story in such a way as to give the performance an appearance no less splendid than exemplary’. The visual aspect of the work was no less vital and the crucial in this regard was the influence of Count Durazzo - ambassador to the Viennese court, and from 1754 director of the city’s imperial theatres - in engaging not just the ballet-master Jean-Georges Noverre but also the scene-painter Giuseppe Quaglio whose designs contributed substantially to the success of Gluck and librettist Calzibigi’s opera.

Indeed, Gluck’s Orpheus is inherently classical in its fusion of the musical, linguistic, visual and gestural. The composer’s aim was not so different from that, one hundred years later, of Nietzsche and Wagner: the revival of classical Greek tragedy through a synthesis of the arts in accord with the ancient Greek’s principle of orchestique: the incorporation of dance and gymnastics into theatre. So, it’s not surprising that choreographers from Isadora Duncan to Frederick Ashton to Pina Bausch have been drawn to Gluck’s opera, aiming to visualise the music through physical movement and bodily gesture.

Wayne McGregor dancers Act 2.jpgDancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

Bausch conceived of three dancers’ roles to perform alongside Gluck’s characters, and McGregor nods in this direction, with two of the fourteen dancers from Studio Wayne McGregor, Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett-Graham, seeming to serve as avatars for Alice Coote’s Orpheus and Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice respectively. At times, the dancers successfully evoke the characters’ circumstances and imagined feelings - as when, upon the death of Eurydice, O’Connell is pinned to the floor by the Furies until the latter are charmed by Coote’s song and release their captive. Similarly, the final reunion of the mortals is touchingly expressed in a physical duet which embraces the singers’ bodily forms too.

ST and dancer.jpgSarah Tynan and Jacob O’Connell. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

However, all too often the danced mimes and extended choreographic sequences do not, to my mind, bring about a union of movement and music. While McGregor’s choreography is expressive in its own right, and some of the characters’ thoughts and feelings are exteriorised through movement in a general way, there seemed to me to be little attempt to give corporeal form to the emotions and ideas that are expressed by Gluck’s musical rhythms. Moreover, McGregor seems uninterested in the singers themselves, despite song being at the heart of the materialisation of the opera’s ideological foundations. And despite having three terrific singer-actors with whom to work. There is practically no ‘direction’ of the cast, while the Chorus - in excellent voice - are consigned to the shadows. Surely, the latter’s interaction is central to the drama? They are far, far more than just a disembodied sound? By down-playing the importance of Gluck’s music and concentrating solely on the physical and the visual, McGregor undermines the very essence of the opera, shifting our attention away from the sonic beauty and power of Orpheus’s song.

Moreover, ‘visual’ here refers to light and costume. There is no ‘set’ as such, though the cavernous black hole of the ENO stage serves as a fitting representation of hell, even if it doesn’t provide much context or acoustic support for the singers. Instead, designer Lizzie Clachan relies on Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’ video projections to indicate situation and mood. So, when Eurydice dies and descends, it’s not so much to the Underworld that she is heading, rather under-water, as indicated by the projection of rippling waves above a yellow-tinted glass tank in which Eurydice is suspended in the manner of a Damien Hirst shark floating in formaldehyde. The reason for her death is also obscure: she seems to proffer her arm up willingly to the deathly syringe (snakebite?), twice, and appears to have left behind a suicide note.

Initially Louise Gray’s costumes are monochrome: Eurydice wears a bridal gown scrawled with instructions such as ‘Do not look’ (so, why does she get so upset later when Orpheus does as he’s told?); the dancers sport skull-embroidered leggings; Coote is forced to don a shapeless sack-dress graffitied with random words and phrases - ‘deprivation’, ‘tendre amour’ ‘underground’. What is the point of such redundant gimmicks?

Dance of Blessed Spirits.jpgDancers from Company Wayne McGregor. Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

The slide down to Hades is marked by an eye-blinding red-and-green light show - a sort of sonic-kinetic visualiser - and the dancers spice up their skimpy costumes with day-glow legwarmers and stripes. Were the Furies confronting Orpheus with his own sexuality? Asymmetrical clashing primary colours - and a tender pas de deux for two male dancers - mark the harmony of the Elysian Fields. Coote and Tynan are left to their own devices in the final Act, the only directorial-design ‘assistance’ being a sequence of projected squares and rectangles of analog noise: the fact that random, flickering dot-pixel patterns of static indicate a lack of transmission seemed ironically apt - they are of no relevance at all to the tragic drama to which the singers are giving voice.

Gluck Act 4.jpgSarah Tynan (Eurydice) and Alice Coote (Orpheus). Photo credit: Donald Cooper.

The three soloists coped gamely with the directorial tabula rasa. It was announced that Coote was suffering from a viral infection, but while Act 1 felt a little effortful, ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ was intensely expressive. Gluck himself remarked that ‘Nothing but a change in the mode of expression is needed to turn my aria “Che farò senza Euridice” into a dance for marionettes’, and Coote demonstrated the capacity that Gluck implies a fine singer possesses to make his apparently simple music almost painfully affecting. Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice burned with credible human emotions which were delivered with luminosity and strength. As Love, Soraya Mafi phrased Love’s guidance and entreaties with grace and silkiness.

Conductor Harry Bicket set off at a furious pace - perhaps determined by choreographic necessities? - and pushed hard throughout, seldom taking time to bring the details of Berlioz’s orchestration to the fore.

Those who want to see talented dancers perform interesting choreography will enjoy McGregor’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Those who want to hear Orpheus’s loss, rather than see it, will be less satisfied.

Claire Seymour

Orpheus - Alice Coote, Eurydice - Sarah Tynan, Love - Soraya Mafi; Director/Choreographer - Wayne McGregor, Conductor - Harry Bicket, Rehearsal Director - Odette Hughes, Set Designer - Lizzie Clachan, Costume Designer - Louise Gray, Lighting Designer - Jon Clark, Video Designer - Ben Cullen Williams, Translator - Christopher Cowell, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Tuesday 1st October 2019.

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