Orpheus in London: Four Orpheus Operas at the English National Opera

Lisa Hirsch on November 26, 2019
A scene from ENO’s Orpheus in the Underworld | Credit: Clive Barda

You would think that themed opera seasons would be a regular occurrence, given that opera companies are seeking novel ways to engage audiences on and off stage. However, you would be wrong, even though a themed season presents special opportunities for lectures, seminars, appearances by experts from other art forms, presentations of related artworks, and more. In the United States, only Boston’s Odyssey Opera, currently in the midst of a Tudors Season featuring several great rarities, seems to have pursued this type of programming.

A scene from ENO’s Orpheus in the Underworld | Credit: Clive Barda

But this fall, the English National Opera (ENO) presented four very different works on the theme of the ancient myth of Orpheus. In its simplest outline, Orpheus, the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, was the greatest musician and poet of his age, so gifted that his music could charm wild animals. He married Eurydice and they lived together happily. She was bitten by a snake and died. The devastated Orpheus made his way to the land of the dead, where he persuaded Hades (also called Pluto), god of the underworld, to allow him to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living. Hades made one condition: that Orpheus must lead and must not look back at Eurydice as they leave the underworld. As they returned, Orpheus lost his nerve and looked back. Eurydice then returned to the underworld forever.

The appeal of this theme for composers and librettists could not be more obvious, and indeed dozens of Orpheus operas have been written in the last four hundred years, from Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600, the earliest opera for which the music survives, to Matthew Aucoin’s forthcoming Euridyce, which will premiere at LA Opera in February, 2020. Heinrich Schütz’s only opera, long lost, was an Orpheus opera.

For this series, ENO chose Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, in Berlioz’s adaptation for a mezzo or alto Orpheus; Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld; Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus; and Philip Glass’s Orphée.

These are diverse works from different eras. Gluck had considerable influence on mid-to-late 18th century opera, as the form moved away from the florid style of much Baroque opera toward a less-decorated style. Additionally, Gluck’s style was a direct influence on that of Berlioz, making it entirely appropriate that the French composer would create his own adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Offenbach’s satiric, mid-19th-century operetta twists the story in entertaining ways, and Tom Morris and director Emma Rice’s free adaptation adds a contemporary twist of its own. Glass’s Orphée is a direct adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s film of the same name, one of the composer’s three adaptations of the director’s work, along with Les Enfants Terribles and La Belle et la Bête. Birtwistle’s opera takes a distinctive and complex approach to the myth, one in which Peter Zinovieff’s libretto presents multiple viewpoints at once and, over the course of the opera, multiple versions of the story.

William Morgan, David Ireland, and Simon Wilding in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

Of the four, you’re least likely to ever have a chance to see The Mask of Orpheus, which has rarely been performed since its 1986 premiere, and perhaps only in London.

It’s no wonder performances are so rare: this opera is a monster that presents any number of challenges. For one thing, given the size of the cast, the unusual orchestration, and the complexity of the staging, it must cost a fortune to rehearse and stage. (I certainly wonder how ENO, which has been in administrative and financial turmoil for years, managed to fund this fall’s five performances.) For another, the convoluted libretto and the nature of the music must make it a hard sell to audiences.

Peter Hoare and Alfa Marks in in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

Orpheus and Eurydice appear in three guises each, as Orpheus the Man, Eurydice the Woman, Orpheus the Hero, Eurydice the Hero, Orpheus the Myth, and Eurydice the Myth. The two Myth roles are designated as puppets, the two Hero roles as mimes. The Heroes were here played by circus performers. All three pairs are on stage simultaneously through most of the opera, and the two Myth performers also represent Hades and Persephone. Aristaeus, who tries to seduce Eurydice or, in another guise, tries to inspire her to leave Orpheus, also appears as the Man, the Myth, and the Hero. Other characters include three Furies, four Judges, three Priests, and three Women. Some of the smaller parts can be doubled (the same singers performed the Furies and Women at ENO, for example), but the cast is still big, and there’s a chorus as well.

A scene from ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

The orchestra for The Mask of Orpheus is large and idiosyncratic, consisting of 37 woodwinds, 16 brass, seven percussionists, three harps, electric and bass guitar, electric mandolin, and taped electronic music. At times, the score requires two conductors in the pit.

Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

I made an ultimately futile attempt to read the libretto, which is more of an artifact for study, presumably by the director, conductors, and performers, than a guide for an audience member. Among other things, a four-page table sorts every bit of text by main category, specific name, number, type, position, participants, situation, and order. The libretto is full of charts showing stage positions and timings — presumably because of the taped electronic music in the score — and one table enumerating “Words, Timings and Relationships in the Structure of the Arches.” As described in the libretto, Act II takes place in relation to a series of 17 arches, but the arches weren’t physically present in this production.

And so on: even when you get to the sung text, the libretto is exceptionally difficult to follow, since events that take place simultaneously on stage are set at different times in the characters’ lives. The synopsis in ENO’s excellent program is four pages long; I suspect I could summarize the entirety of Wagner’s Ring in fewer words.

While this says a good deal about the difficulties of The Mask of Orpheus, it also says something about the work’s ambitions. It encompasses not one Orpheus myth, but several, and this goes hand-in-hand with Birtwistle’s overarching, career-long connection with myth and ritual.

William Morgan, Peter Hoare, Simon Wilding, and David Ireland in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

It’s not at all clear to me whether Daniel Kramer’s production succeeded in showing what Birtwistle and Zinovieff are trying to accomplish with The Mask of Orpheus. The music is dense, layered, often extremely loud, and, despite an orchestra that could have been deployed with immense variety, remarkably austere, with much of the musical color coming from the electronic music.

Visually, there was plenty of color. Daniel Lismore, a noted eccentric, designed the costumes, which, as ENO’s advertisements trumpeted, included 400,000 Swarovski crystals. Some of the costumes were quite plain, but others were large and complicated and looked difficult to move and perform in.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus | Credit: Alastair Muir

Regardless of how successful the work itself is, the performers were absolutely heroic in their sincerity and involvement and ability to embody this extremely difficult work. Conductors Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw commanded the score and kept everything well-coordinated. Peter Hoare was a moving Orpheus the Man, Daniel Norman excellent as both Orpheus the Myth and Hades. Mezzo-sopranos Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Claire Barnett-Jones sounded amazingly alike as Eurydice the Woman and the Myth, with Barnett-Jones also singing Persephone. Circus artists Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks gave spectacular, supremely graceful, performances as Orpheus and Eurydice the Heroes.

Is there, can there be, a summing-up of this immensely complicated work? I’m a known Birtwistle fan who both likes and admires many of his works, and even I found the libretto confusing and the music difficult to disentangle. Despite this, there’s so much to absorb that I deeply regret that I could only see The Mask of Orpheus once.

A scene from ENO’s Orpheus in the Underworld | Credit: Clive Barda

Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld is more or less the polar opposite of The Mask of Orpheus. Its libretto is direct, funny, and satirical; its music light, graceful, and frothy. In short, it’s a romp, of the kind you don’t see much of in the standard operatic repertory. Neither San Francisco Opera nor the Met has ever performed it, which is a shame, because done right, as it was at ENO, audiences would love it.

The twists in the Offenbach include the involvement of all the major gods in the Greco-Roman pantheon, the character Public Opinion, who guides Orpheus to the underworld, and the fact that Orpheus and Eurydice are happy to be rid of one another.

When Orpheus in the Underworld was new, it was generally understood in France that the riotous behavior of the gods was a satire on the court and government of Napoleon III. Maybe a modern-day French audience would still understand this, but an Anglophile audience undoubtedly would not. Never fear, Rice and Morris deftly add a modern-day phenomenon we all know about: #MeToo and how men abuse women.

Alex Otterburn in ENO's Orpheus in the Underworld | Credit: Clive Barda

They accomplish this in a couple of ways: the character John Styx, who is Pluto’s jailer, is transformed from a mere drunkard to a drunkard and sexual harasser of Eurydice while she’s locked up by Pluto, and by emphasizing the extent to which she is commodified by being passed from god to god. (In addition to Pluto, Jupiter comes on to Eurydice in the guise of a fly, and at the end of the opera, she is handed off to Bacchus.) This Orpheus adaptation ends with Orpheus and Eurydice wishing they could be reunited and with Eurydice, dressed in a stripper’s outfit, singing these words to the famous Galop infernal, better known as the Can-can:

Dance! Till you feel your soul goes,
Dance until control goes
And you can’t ask why.
Embrace the frenzy and the pain
Until the mad become the sane.

One performance of Orpheus in the Underworld remains, on Nov. 28. Sian Edwards leads the score with all the verve and sparkle it deserves. Mary Bevan is a charming and vulnerable Eurydice, Ed Lyon a rather recessed Orpheus. Transgender baritone Lucia Lucas makes an earnest Public Opinion, as she should be. The veteran Willard White is a terrific and sonorous Jupiter and Alan Oke a thoroughly creepy John Styx. For my money, though, it’s Alex Otterburn’s cheeky and hilarious Aristaeus/Pluto who steals the show.

Sarah Tynan as the dying Eurydice and Alice Coote in ENO’s Orpheus and Eurydice

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice occupies an exalted place in operatic history, as the first work in which Gluck sought a simpler and more direct style of musical storytelling than was prevalent in the mid-18th century. In this production, directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor (and danced by his company), the opera lived up to its reputation. McGregor’s staging is comparatively stark, with almost all of the visual interest provided by the dancers and singers. The dancers swirl about the stage, individually or as a group; they support and interact with the singers; they sometimes fall in a heap to the floor. In all ways, they support the story as it unfolds.

Sarah Tynan as Eurydice with dancers from Company Wayne McGregor in ENO’s Orpheus and Eurydice | Credit: Donald Cooper

And this Orpheus is the barest and simplest of the versions presented by ENO: just three singers and a completely straightforward telling of the story. The great mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sang Orpheus, who has the bulk of the music and stage time, with eloquence and gravity. Sopranos Sarah Tynan and Soraya Mafi were lovely as Eurydice and Love. Underlying all of this was the truly glorious leadership of Harry Bicket, who conducted with precision, rhythmic spring, poise, and superb balance with the singers.

A scene from ENO’s Orphée | Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Glass’s Orphée finds the composer at his most lyrical. It’s a gorgeous score, beautifully orchestrated and somehow subtly French in its sonorities and melodies. Glass himself wrote the original French libretto, which tightly follows Cocteau’s film.

That film, made in 1950, places the action in postwar Paris and interprets Orpheus as a poet whose work slowly estranges him from Eurydice. The plot of both film and opera is convoluted, involving a rivalry with another poet, a Princess who is, in reality, Death, her chauffeur Heurtebise, a tribunal in the underworld that investigates both Orpheus and the Princess, and more.

Nicky Spence, Sarah Tynan, Anthony Gregory, and Jennifer France in ENO’s Orphée | Credit: Catherine Ashmore

There’s a tremendous amount of stage activity, moving at fairly rapid pace, owing to the opera’s fidelity to the film. The text, translated into English by Emma Jenkins and director Netia Jones, is set in a rolling parlando that might work better in French than English. Jones’s direction works exceptionally well, and she cleverly interpolates Glass himself, his teacher Nadia Boulanger, Cocteau, and recognizable characters from Einstein on the Beach into the production.

Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, and Nicky Spence in ENO’s Orphée | Credit: Catherine Ashmore

Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice here is rather longer and more demanding than in the Gluck, and she met the challenges easily, singing with beautiful tone. Nicholas Lester was an appropriately brooding Orphée. Jennifer French made a menacing Princess, though her tone occasionally turned shrill. Tenor Nicky Spence was a dramatic and vocal standout as Heurtebise. Clive Bayley’s Judge was positively Orwellian. Geoffrey Paterson’s vigorous conducting propelled the entire enterprise.

Orphée does not seem to have received many bring-ups, which is a shame given the beauty of the score and its dramatic effectiveness. ENO originated Phelim McDermott’s productions of Satyagraha and Akhnaten, both of which have traveled to the United States, and perhaps Orphée will follow. If you’re in London, two performances remain, on Nov. 27 and 29.

Hearty congratulations are due everyone at ENO and to the performers in these productions for bringing up such different operas and presenting them all so effectively. The orchestra deserves huge kudos for their terrific playing and adaptability; ditto the chorus. Special credit must also go to Lizzie Clachan, who designed the sets for all four works in the Orpheus Series, showing off the range of her considerable talent and skill. Each of the sets was distinctive and worked well with the directors’ and choreographers’ visions. I particularly liked the rotating set for used for the underworld in Orpheus in the Underworld and the layers of black, white, and gray in the Orphée sets. It would have been fascinating to see what she would have done for the arches of The Mask of Orpheus if the production had more closely followed the libretto.