English National Opera, 27th November 2019
The Mask of Orpheus. Extraordinary music, fine singing, showy production. Orpheus and Eurydice. Fine music, mostly, superb singing, faulty production. So how would the Tourist fair in his third encounter with the Orpheus myth in the ENO season. Well since you ask. Best production of the three by far courtesy of Netia Jones, who also oversaw costume and video, and Lizzie Clachlan’s multi-faceted set. Mind you I knew just how good Ms Jones’s ideas can be, heavy though they are on monochrome video visuals, thanks to her memorable take on Britten’s Curlew River in 2013. Singing, well singing-through, since the libretto is a pretty straight, (here closely translated into English by the versatile Ms Jones and Emma Jenkins), lift from the Cocteau 1950 film script, that was more than up to the task notably from Nicholas Lester as our eponymous hero, coloratura Jennifer France as the baddie Princess and, unsurprisingly, Nicky Spence as the ominous chauffeur Heurtebise. Music faultlessly executed by the ENO orchestra as usual under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson, though it is near two hours of Philip Glass with all the good and bad that implies.
So why wasn’t I bowled over. Well I think that comes down to the source material. Jean Cocteau was a wilful fellow, with talent to burn across media, even when off his tits on opium, but he did have his bugbears and did not see any problem with excess self-love. His film is Art with a big A, about love, death and jealously like its source, but also about how the Artist operates in a realm far beyond that occupied by us ordinary mortals. Indeed Orphee here is a misunderstood poet who seeks immortality. With the help of a lot of mirrors. Cocteau thought he was special and was determined to show us. More Narcissus and Thanatos than Orpheus maybe, though with more than a whiff of grumpy old man misogyny. Mind you Cocteau himself came in for a lot of criticism from the artistic elite, notably the Surrealists, which was often tinged with homophobia. The most obvious inspiration for his aesthetic in the film is surely Man Ray.
The film is a mix of dream and naturalism set in 1950s Paris. A drunken night out ends with younger poet rival to Orphee, Cegeste (Anthony Gregory) mown down by a couple of motor bikes after a fight. The mysterious Princess steps in to help, but instead abducts Orphee to a chateau, where she, her lackeys and the reanimated (!) Cegeste disappear. No problem as Heurtebise returns Orphee to his hone where the coppers, wife put upon Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) and feminist friend Aglaonice (Rachael Lloyd) are wondering what he has been up to. Heurtebise moves in and falls for the pregnant Eurydice. Orphee gets obsessed with the radio which may be talking to him via some ropey poetry, Eurydice is murdered by the Princess’s lackeys and Heurtebise and Orphee make a trip to the Underworld. A dodgy Court says he can take Orphee back, subject to the usual condition, when he declares he no longer fancies Death/The Princess. Eurydice fatally looks at hubby in the car mirror and so back to square one, with Orphee joining her after getting shot at the bar where all this shenanigans kicked off. Back to the Underworld to have memories wiped for O & E with Death/Princess and Heurtebise checking in for good.
Worth knowing all this and brushing up on the synopsis though even so I confess to losing the thread a few times through the 18 scenes. And to not fully appreciating the point of the many “framing” extras that Ms Jones introduces. No matter. Glass’s score contains just enough variation to demarcate the shifts in the odd narrative and in character, (this was still well before Glass drifted into auto-pilot mode), and visually the production is a treat with Netia Jones emulating Cocteau’s own mix of lo and hi (for the time) cinematographic technique to provide an equally striking impression. Cocteau made it up as he went along. Ms Jones, along with Lucy Carter (lighting) and Danielle Agami (choreography), and unlike some other directors at the ENO recently, takes a far more methodical approach, which, deliberately mirrors the film (with direct video quotes), and its “making of” successor, Le Testament d’Orphee, whilst still remembering to be an opera. As I think Glass envisaged even if he wrote for French not English and maybe with a smaller stage in mind.
Philip Glass long harboured an ambition to convert Cocteau’s vision into opera after spending 1954 in a hedonistic whirl in Paris. (He returned in the mid 1960s to study under Nadia Boulanger). It was composed in 1991 just after his wife, artist Candy Jernigan, died unexpectedly from liver cancer. He went on to compose two further operas based on Cocteau’s films, La Belle et la Bete (1994) and Les Enfants Terribles (1996).