The Mask of Orpheus at the ENO review ****

The Mask of Orpheus

English National Opera, 25th October 2019

No idea where we were in the story for much of the getting on for four hours with with the two intervals. Not helped by Peter Zinovieff’s impenetrable libretto, sung and spoken, the bloated rock star gets lost in early 80’s WAG Club setting courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan’s set and frock-maker Daniel Lismore’s preposterous spangly costumes, the tripartite two singer, one acrobat/dancer, Myth/Hero/Human, casting for our hero, heroine and baddie, and the wilful directing of Daniel Kramer, where spectacle trumps sense.

Who gives a fuck though when you have a score like this. With an ENO orchestra at the top of its game lovingly conducted by Martyn Brabbins, (who has history with this work), and James Henshaw, (yep it takes two). Up to now the Tourist’s exposure to Sir Harrison Birtwhistle has been fleeting. A few chamber pieces. None of the orchestral works bar the latest Donum Simoni MMXVIII, and certainly none of the operas. And, let’s face it, you are not going to sit down and listen to recordings. Nope the full on Sir Harry experience requires a live opera in performance.

Now I get it. As a contrast I don’t know where Xenakis’s music comes from, and I am conscious that I am probably just taking on board all the cultural baggage attached to its interpretation, but it definitely isn’t of this world, (though of course it is, it still being just notes on a page) . Whereas Sir HB’s tunes, for all that “elemental”, “earthy”, “massive”, “mythic”, “ritualistic”, “visceral”, and the like, that is applied to described most definitely does come from this planet, underneath our feet for sure, as many intuit, but also from within our selves. Which made its pairing with the Orpheus myth kind of inevitable. For all the racket that the brass, wind, percussion and electronica, entirely stringless, (well bar plucked like electric guitars and mandolin), that make up the score conjure up, this still very, well, human. The brass and wind is the flow, the percussion the accent.

Right poncey pseud-ery over. I could read the excellent ENO programme over and over, plough through the learned reviews, do the rounds on Wiki, but frankly it would get me no closer to the truth of what I heard and saw. Just impossible to take it all in. You know the story. O&E get it on, marry, snakebite, death, offer to O to go underground …. but don’t whatever you do Mr music man look ba….. oh shit, you did. Various endings depending on who you believe. All four are given a work-out here. In various other permutations and combinations of the whole story . 126 different elements in total. A prologue and epilogue. Act I – 3 scenes, 2 Passing Clouds and an Allegorical Flower. Act II – 17 Arches and the Second Flower. Act III – 8 Episodes and the Final Cloud.

Unstructured time. Flash-backs, flash-forwards, flash-arounds, flash-simultaneity. Contradiction and ambiguity. The antithesis of linear story-telling. With the aforementioned O&E, and the not so blessed cheesemaker randy Aristaeus, done three ways. So if the words don’t grab you, (and they very rarely will though the repetitions and exclamations will start to bite), you can turn to the songs, or the mime, or the dance, or the bath/barbecue/dentist chair/chrysalis/sexy time/funeral parlour/bobbly skin fellas/bee video effects (you can probably work out that I may not quite have fully grasped the messages), or the aerial silks, or the OTT costumes complete with, I forget, billions of Swarovski crystals.

And the cast and creatives really work hard. Matthew Smith and Alfa Marks as the very fit, in both senses, Hero O&E dancers. Tenor Daniel Norman and mezzo Clare Barnett-Jones as the Myth Orpheus/Hades and Myth Eurydice/Persephone respectively, who had the mother of all costume changes and the sweet mezzo tone of Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Woman Eurydice. James Cleverton, Simon Bailey and Leo Hedman as respectively The Man, The Myth/Charon and The Hero Aristaeus. And Claron McFadden as the Oracle, and Hecate, who marshals the crew who make up the three way judges, priests, women and furies.

But for balls out, (well not quite), on stage all night, haring round the stage, holding everything together whilst appearing, as the part demanded, pissed, the star of the show is Peter Hoare. I don’t know if he gets paid anymore for this role compared to his more normal C20 repertoire, but he should. Mind you I see he started off as a percussionist before taking up singing. Which I guess, deep down, makes him connected to the music in a way that maybe others aren’t. Even when said percussion, which Sir Harry explores in every conceivable combination, is drowning him out despite amplification. (Oh and do remember by the time we get to Act III some of the text isn’t even in English anyway).

When all else fails though, as it often did, I just closed by eyes and drowned in the sound. Three is the magic number. Orpheus remember makes sweet music. But when the going gets tough, arch after arch, the music gets bigger and louder with a literally earth shattering 40 minute climax at the end of Act II. The sampled harp chords which create the electronic interludes composed by Barry Anderson at IRCAM. The synthesised voice of Apollo. The scraps of, I hesitate to say, melody that are repeated again and again. Orpheus’s memories. Restless rhythms. The pulses, the marches, the clunks, the shimmers, the drones. The massive, monumental structures. The raw immediacy. Never heard anything like it and when surrendered to whatever it is, ignoring all the guff on or above the stage, I swear I have never felt anything like it.

I gather the original production, on this very stage in 1986, and only now revived, went for a more mythic, indeterminate Greek vibe, with singer, mime and puppet per the score and with masks. I think I might have got on better with this but frankly I can’t blame the much maligned and now departing Daniel Kramer for chucking the camp, surreal kitchen sink at this. If, budget-wise, you’ve got it, then you might as well flaunt it. Maybe it was all clear in his head but I doubt it. David Pountney, the director of the original, had the good grace to say he had no idea what it was all about.

Once in a lifetime experience. In which case I wouldn’t mind another life. Or many lives. For that is what it would take to wrap your ears around it. In the absence of that the memory will suffice and maybe I should relent and try the benchmark (only) recording from the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins and Andrew Davies. In fact YOLO and its Christmas so I will.

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