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Reviews

18 Nov 2019

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Philip Glass: Orphée - English National Opera

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: ENO: Orphée

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

Cocteau’s take on the Orphée myth is a touch idiosyncratic and the allegory is reset, like tuned in and tuned out radio stations (a recurring motif in this staging), to an unfolding of the story in a contemporary context. All of this is meticulously recreated in Lizzie Clachan’s sets for ENO. This is post-war France, with its shattered buildings and grey arrondissements - a city where characters kind of zone in and out between the living and the dead. Orphée is now a poet, though he is in something of an existentialist crisis. Eurydice’s blandness is seen through her kitchen and a threadbare armchair; if there is colour here it isn’t of the dazzling kind, just a mosaic of demi-print which is washed out. As if to illustrate the banality of this relationship, Eurydice’s dress is identical to that of the wallpaper, so she just appears to be absorbed into it, forgettable. Orphée simply looks fragile, emasculated by his recognition as a poet.

In contrast, the Princess, the very embodiment of Cocteau’s strong feminine figure, is endowed with extraordinary visual power. Her long, sweeping black dresses and hair that shines like anthracite, is an image that is moulded in strength. The only time we see her in colour, it’s a sharp, blazing purple which is like a torch, made all the more striking because it’s projected entirely against black and white. As in Cocteau’s film, Netia Jones, the director of this production, sets her up as the masculine, erotic and powerful figure who draws Orphée into the underworld. A lot of Jones’s production makes us question the role of gender identity, too. Orphée is striking only for his beauty; the Princess is devastating, dark and haunting. Ordinariness clashing with the magical, the mortal with the immortal.

If there is much in this production which mirrors the film, there is room because of what Glass composed in his score to take us away from the screen. The opening scene, for example, set in the Café des Poètes, is something of a raucous affair. It almost appears at first to embrace many of the themes which run through both the film and the opera - the use of mirrors, the confusion over gender - but in terms of its choreography it looks back towards West Side Story, and Cocteau might even have appreciated the gesture towards Brando-esque figures fused into the narrative. Glass’s score brims with jazzy rhythms, and the café becomes a place for acrobatics. But Jones then contrives to focus on the homoeroticism which Cocteau so languished over - so we get the striking backdrop from the film of the director’s lover, Jean Marais, being driven in the Rolls Royce by the chauffeur Heurtebise with the sphinx-like Princess. Radio is a prevailing image, a metaphor for mystery. Messages enigmatically appear everywhere, typed out as if it’s poetry by Orphée who has lost the will to create. Mirrors becomes the means by which people come and go, disappearing into the distance. One of the most striking parallels is in how the Princess’s palace is projected on screen as a magnificent but destroyed torso of a building, its twisted frame and beams shattered, debris piled high, but Eurydice’s kitchen is a real-life apartment in all its claustrophobic tawdriness. Even here destruction is a beautiful thing simply because inside this wasteland there is the suggestion of opulence. Glass’s score might be dark here, but it has all the mystery that goes with it.

Some of the staging feels a little clunky with sets moving through the multiple scene changes. In part, this is overcome by large frames which drop down so you look on them as if you are seeing scenes within a film. A rolling camera rotates like a windmill. The focus is clever enough that the eye doesn’t stray onto what is happening elsewhere. Likewise, full screen curtains, which are partly transparent, drape across scenes from the film so you forget that they disappear. It’s all part of this production’s debt to cinematography which haunts this production, part of the trick work that photography does in Cocteau’s film but an opera can’t match in live action. The use of shadows is a magnificent achievement - as the Princess and Orphée walk and run across the stage and multiple images of them appear like ghosts; it’s hypnotic. In the underworld itself you’re transfixed by the walking dead, one clearly of Einstein. The suggestion that Glass is playing with us, and that Einstein on the Beach is being recalled is unmistakable. Cocteau himself is a reference point - even before the opera begins he is speaking to us in French, and an artist scrawls an image of one of his masturbatory phallic drawings on a wall reminding us that Cocteau unambiguously celebrated male sexuality.

Jennifer France (The Princess) & Nicholas Lester (Orphée) (c) Catherine Ashmore.jpgJennifer France (The Princess) and Nicholas Lester (Orphée). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Netia Jones - in her role as costume designer - has as far as possible made the distinction between the living and dead, the underworld and the world on the Parisian streets, completely authentic. Café society reflects the buoyancy in Glass’s bright scoring; but in the tribunal scene there is every suggestion she is mirroring the complexity of guilt and collaboration which is so affecting in Cocteau’s visionary cinematography. The detail is very finely attuned to what we hear in the score - something we rarely appreciate in opera.

The casting and singing in this production is first rate. It has to be said that the very size of this theatre doesn’t always make it easy to appreciate how well artists fit the roles they are singing - and this was partly the case here. Cocteau does complicate the story - so we get the introduction of a new character, Heurtebise, who has fallen in love with Eurydice. The resolution in the opera is that the Princess and Heurtebise sacrifice their love to send Orphée and Eurydice back to the living on the condition that they never again look at each other. There is unquestionably some ambiguity in how this is played out - where do the dynamics of love lie, and if there are love interests where does the power rest?

The dominant characters in both the Cocteau film and Jones’s opera are clearly the Princess and Heurtebise, at least in so far as the erotic dimension is drawn. It was unequivocally the case that what we got here was an Orphée and Eurydice who embraced their urbanity. Cocteau’s film almost languished in the beauty of his Orphée, Jean Marais, and the sheer charisma of his Princess, Maria Casarès. In Jones’s production one sometimes felt that it was the sultry beauty of Anthony Gregory’s Cégeste, the young up-and-coming drunken poet soon to be struck down by a motorcycle.

Jennifer France’s Princess manages to be enigmatic and imperious, embracing everything the dour Eurydice is not. There is an elegance to France’s Princess of Death, a rhythmic power to her characterisation of the role which is faultless. It isn’t just the crystal-like purity, the diamond-cut precision of her singing which is so striking but the way she acts which also gives this assumption such presence. Standing centre stage, swathed in black, she can sometimes seem larger than life; walking in the shadow scene there is a rhythm to her steps which moves in complete harmony with the music. She seems a source of mystery, no more so than when she disappears through the mirrors and fades into the darkness. The voice is tenebrous, yet completely resolute. There is a haunting, but formidable projection to what she sings. And yet she is fundamentally human, capable of seeming completely tragic as she resolves to forgo her own love.

JF Glass.jpgJennifer France (The Princess). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Nicholas Lester’s Orphée manages to stride between the banality of his existence with Eurydice and the underworld where his love for the Princess is never quite resolved. It never quite feels a dominant performance in this production, however, perhaps reflecting the duality of his underachievement and the enigma of his desires. The sense that this Orphée is just an ordinary young man - almost forgettable - never ceases to be one of the fissures in this production. Lester often appears at his best besides his Eurydice, Sarah Tynan, where both seem to covet the essence of their fate. But one also perhaps feels Lester’s poet is not one who is in love with mortality; that is for the anti-hero Cégeste whose fate is for death to embrace the poet. And if Cocteau has us gaze on his Orphée, Jones almost avoids this. As finely sung as it was, it felt to me a performance which lacked potency - but perhaps this was entirely the point.

Nicky Spence’s Heurtebise also travels between the living and the dead, but what Orphée lacks in emotional power the young chauffeur, like the Princess, is driven by desire. Attracted to the urbane Eurydice he too must sacrifice his love, but Spence was hugely affecting. I’ve sometimes felt disinclined to warm to the character, but Spence’s performance of him rather changed this. He made him vulnerable, the suggestion that his love for Eurydice was doomed and tragic. He sang magnificently. Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice manged to walk the thin line between being simple and sounding anything but. The voice never lacked colour or tonal beauty, the bourgeois print of her dress all that was needed to make her seem simply ordinary. Anthony Gregory’s Cégeste sang with such poetic diction in mind one often related to his character more than one did with Orphée. I’m not sure if it was intended or not, but the near reversal of the Orphée and Cégeste characters in this production had Gregory’s poet sounding more intense and anguished, his journey through the underworld among the recent dead, and his typing of radio messages, almost overshadowing those of Orphée.

If Philip Glass’s score for this opera lacks some of the richness we hear in an opera like Akhenaten, its can sometimes appear closer to some of the composer’s film music. There is a clear debt to Leonard Bernstein is some of the jazz one hears; but the precision of the instrumentation, the clarity of individual textures such as a flute or trumpet, the use of percussion, and the detail uncovered owes something to Glass’s early training in France under Boulanger. It’s no coincidence that Nadia Boulanger was one of the undead walking through the underworld in Jones’s production. Geoffrey Paterson, making his ENO debut, was fastidious in uncovering the layers in the score and the music was conducted at a pace which never impedes the drama of the work. But this is, I think, not a Glass opera which suffers from tempo issues as some of his works are prone to do. The ENO orchestra were, as usual with this composer, superb.

This is a production which works as opera, despite its heavy homage to the film on which it is based. The tendency in the past for directors to use the medium of cinema in opera staging’s has often felt overly interventionist, or has interfered with what we are seeing. Netia Jones has been able to strike a balance between the two which makes for a compelling experience.

Marc Bridle

Orphée - Nicholas Lester, Eurydice - Sarah Tynan, Princess - Jennifer France, Heurtebise - Nicky Spence, Cégeste - Anthony Gregory, Judge/Commissaire - Clive Bailey, Poet - Simon - Shibamu, Aglaonice - Rachael Lloyd, Reporter - William Morgan; Director/Costume design/Video design - Netia Jones, Conductor - Geoffrey Paterson, Set design - Lizzie Clachan, Lighting - Lucy Carter, Choroegraphy - Danielle Agami, Orchestra of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Friday 15th November 2019.

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