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Orpheus and Eurydice at English National Opera

07.10.2019


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English National Opera kicked off its 2019-20 season in style with a new production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice forming part of ENO’s ‘Orpheus’ series reimagining four operas exploring the ‘Orpheus’ myth. Each opera will be interpreted by four directors from diverse theatrical disciplines and all sets created by renowned British designer, Lizzie Clachan. Completing the creative team are Louise Gray (costume designer), Jon Clark (lighting designer) and Ben Cullen-Williams (video designer).


Directed by choreographer, Wayne McGregor - making his ENO directorial début at the famous St Martin’s Lane theatre built by Sir Oswald Stoll and opened in 1904 as a music-hall - Orpheus and Eurydice was performed to a new translation by Christopher Cowell with classical/baroque conductor, Harry Bicket, in the pit - returning to the company from whence he started his career as chorus-master - with English National Opera Orchestra admirably led by Janice Graham.


After originally singing the role of Orpheus 17 years ago for ENO, mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (then a relatively unknown singer) found herself back on the same stage in the same role while another popular singer with ENO audiences, soprano Sarah Tynan, also returned to the flock to sing the first of her two Eurydice roles this season following her appearances in the title-roles of Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor last season. 


The trio of singers was completed by Lancashire-born soprano and ENO Harewood Artist, Soraya Mafi, singing the role of Amour, god of love. She’s enjoying a blossoming career and made her ENO début as Edith in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in 2015 while going on to sing Tytania in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year.


First performed at the Burgtheater, Vienna, in October 1762, in the presence of Empress Maria Theresa, Orphée et Eurydice is one of the most popular works of Gluck and the first of his ‘reform’ operas in which he attempted to replace the abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria with a noble simplicity in terms of both music and drama. Twelve years after its première, Gluck revised the opera to suit the whims of a fickle Parisian audience performed to a libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline.


Such an important work, Orphée et Eurydice was influential on subsequent German operas. Variations on its plot such as the underground rescue mission in which the hero must control (or conceal) his emotions can be found in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Das Rheingold.


Other influences include the composer Niccolò Jommelli noted for his blending of all aspects of the production ranging from ballet to staging and his maître-de-ballet at Stuttgart, Jean-Georges Noverre, whose ballet, Lettres sur la danse (dating from 1760) called for dramatic effect over acrobatic ostentation. Noverre was greatly influenced by the operas of Rameau and the considerable quantity of ballet found in Orphée et Eurydice is thought to be down to his influence.


Originally set to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, Orphée et Eurydice owes much to the genre of French opera while the work belongs to the genre of ‘azione teatrale’ (Italian: ‘theatrical action’) meaning an opera on a mythological subject to include choruses and dancing.


Therefore, using the Berlioz edition of 1859, choruses and dancing were to the fore in this production directed with flair and imagination by Wayne McGregor - who collaborated with ENO on the choreography of Richard Strauss’ Salome in 2005 - while 14 dancers from his studio performed alongside the singers in an inter-disciplinary fusion of opera and dance.


And with the Coliseum’s vast stage (one of the largest to be found in the West End) Mr McGregor made good use of the space readily available to him with the singers mainly placed centre stage with the dancers having the freedom of the wider stage. But, somehow, against all the odds, I feel, this production still managed to retain its feeling of intimacy and warmth.


A twist on the traditional opening scene witnessed Eurydice receiving intense medical treatment for a serpent’s bite in tandem with some fiddling going on with an odd item of paper, maybe relating to her last will and testament. Who knows? But, to no avail, she was lost to Orpheus, that’s for sure. The chorus - in this production represented by dancers as members of ENO’s well-loved chorus were banished to the orchestra pit - gathered round her body suspended in a glass-built tank-like structure serving as her mausoleum in a solemn chorus of mourning led by Orpheus. Overcome with grief at his wife’s death, he desperately wants her back. To achieve his mission, blessed by Amore, he descends to the perilous depths of the Underworld but on their return to life he must not look back at her until they have crossed the river Styx.


A brilliant scene! And so was the scene in which Orpheus is greeted at the gates of Hades in act II with the raging-mad Furies refusing him entry to the Underworld. But overcome by the sweetness of his charms, especially to his singing, they stamped his passport and he proceeded on his rescue mission. The Dance of the Furies ended the scene with the dancers’ silhouetted figures dramatically seen against large white panels either side of the stage. In striking contrast was the Dance of the Blessed Spirits set in Elysian Fields which saw the Shades attired in tight-fitting, fluorescent-designed, bold-patterned costumes designed by Louise Gray that really wouldn’t look out of place in a pantomime dance routine.


The creative team sparked well off each other. Jon Clark’s lighting scenario was strong while Ben Cullen-Williams’ video sequences - well conceived and effective - were even stronger especially on the journey to the Underworld where black-and-white abstract images regularly flashed a full-width screen at the back of the stage conjuring up all sorts of visions of hell and the misery it harbours.


As daylight beckons, Orpheus is seen trekking through the hellish darkness with Eurydice trailing behind him alarmed by his apparent aloofness. Realising that her deepest pleas for a fleeting show of kindness has no effect upon him, she’s cast into immeasurable sorrow. But then their eyes meet, Eurydice drops dead, Orpheus dissolves into grief.


Through his own failure, Orpheus has lost his most precious treasure. Suddenly, as he’s about to end his life, Amour suddenly springs to life to reward him for proving that his devotion to love is stronger than the mightiest bonds of death. Therefore, the gods restore Eurydice to life and as Orpheus embrace the moment, all earth rejoice at the couple’s blissful reunion with the loving couple - shadowed by dancers in doppelganger roles which I took to be their spirits - singing of each other’s praises thereby fusing voice and dance into one art-form.


The trio of singers proved their worth. Alice Coote (recovering from a viral infection, but that didn’t seem to matter) was strong and determined as Orpheus delivering a fine rendition of the opera’s well-loved number, ‘J’ai perdu-mon Eurydice’ (What shall I do without my Eurydice), Sarah Tynan sensitively portrayed the role of Eurydice singing it tenderly and devotedly and Soraya Mafi (Amour, god of love) lit up the stage just by her presence.
Harry Bicket took control of a splendid and engaging performance getting the delicate balance between pit and stage just right with the players from English National Opera Orchestra journeying through the rolling musical landscape of Berlioz’ thoroughly-entertaining 1859 arrangement. No wonder Gluck hailed him as a great theatrical composer.


Following on from Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, ENO’s ‘Orpheus’ series continues with Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus and Philip Glass’ Orphée.


Historical note: Jean-Georges Noverre and his brother Augustin came to England at the instigation of the actor David Garrick and lived among the Huguenots in Norwich (my home city) where they set up a dancing academy in 1797 at the Assembly Rooms which, I’m pleased to say, is still in use today as a cultural centre. He died in 1805.


Tony Cooper

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