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Orpheus and Eurydice

by on 2 October 2019

Super Human

Orpheus and Eurydice

by Christoph Willibald Gluck, libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

English National Opera, in collaboration with Studio Wayne McGregor, at the London Coliseum until 19th November

Review by Suzanne Frost

I once read a very funny article that said: “God listened to all my hopes and dreams and then made them come true for Keira Knightley.” Poor Keira and her success famously annoy a lot of people. In the world of dance, the unstoppable rise and rise of choreographer extraordinaire Wayne McGregor could trigger an equal level of annoyance – if he wasn’t just so damn amazing. By now dripping in awards and with his fingers in pies as varied as the Royal Ballet, fashion week or the Harry Potter franchise, I still get a little kick out of brand McGregor reaching a new level of world domination.

So hurrah for his ENO debut as an opera director, opening this autumn season no less, and hurrah for his company of extraordinary super humans filling the stage of the Coliseum. In another themed season, this autumn ENO is looking at the Orpheus myth in a variety of forms: four different operas – from minimalist Philip Glass to wacky Offenbach – and four directors from a variety of disciplines, from dance to film to theatre. Plus, if I understand correctly, they will all be performed within the same set by Lizzie Clachan.

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This set is more or less a barren stage with a screen backdrop, bathed in gloomy grey light. The choir is tucked away in the orchestra pit and only features as ghostly bodiless voices. For the prologue, we meet Orpheus (a very ill Alice Coote) and his wife Eurydice (the warm and wonderful Sarah Tynan) on the day of their wedding, but almost OrphEuryd1immediately, the happy bride is relieved of her bouquet, put into a hospital gown and given a deathly injection, whereupon she dies and is laid out on a futuristic suspension behind a yellowish acrylic glass, where she floats eerily like the shark in Damien Hirst’s fish tank. The backdrop turns into a black and white super slow-motion film of the ocean, the wave movement so sparse it is hardly noticeable – an immensely effective device but, to the superfan, actually familiar from McGregor’s stunning Virginia Woolf ballet Woolf Works at ROH (whose star, the prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri is in the audience tonight!). Nevertheless, there is very little that could transmit the idea of all consuming, time stopping grief better than an ocean zapped of its colour and movement.

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For someone who is currently going through grief, there is a lot to recognise in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice: denial, anger, pleading with the gods, bargaining, the complete incomprehension of the finality of death. The backdrop screen just showing flickering static, the nothingness of it all. OrphEuryd2As Orpheus, Alice Coote practically has to carry the entire opera alone, visibly struggling with a nasty virus infection but her sniffles, whether real or performed, integrate into the story. Orpheus never reaches the last level of grief, acceptance, and is instead spurned on by Love (a chirpy Soraya Marfi) to rescue his wife from the underworld. Down to Hades we go, with a black light, strobe lit dance break to show off Company McGregor’s ridiculously skilled super-dancers. They are without a doubt among the best in the world. I wish they weren’t dressed in stripey deconstructed clown athleisure – but I suppose the blacklight does bring out the neon. It’s a version of hell I have never encountered in any of my fever dreams, but it looks fascinating.

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Act Two opens on the peaceful dwellings of the shadows in their “calm and pleasing haven” – Company McGregor now dressed in more colourful sportswear and inexplicably all featuring a heart shaped patch on their bums… Their dancing is sublime, full of kindness and with the tenderest of male duets between the expressive Jordan James Bridge and the fantastically tall Izaac Carroll. I have so much respect for these dancers, which is why I would have really wished for something a little nicer than patched up Sweaty Betty sports bras. I know McGregor likes a deconstructed costume, but I’ve seen them look a lot more stylish before. His trademark zero-facial-all-bodily expression brings a serene calming quality to the movement. When Orpheus bursts into this kingdom of shades he is literally disrupting a meditation session. Again, it is a version of heaven I have never encountered in my dreams, but it does make you wonder if Eurydice isn’t actually perfectly fine surrounded by those calm, kind and colourful spirits. Sarah Tynan is a beautiful warm presence on stage and the final duet where the lovers almost reach the light at the end of the tunnel but of course cannot escape their terribly human instinct to look at each other – the one thing the gods forbade them to do – is moving. Eurydice dies for a second time and Orpheus begins the whole grieving process again, harder, angrier, bargaining with bigger stakes, threatening to kill himself. Love decides that this is proof enough for the gods and in a dreamy sequence, the lovers are reunited, not with each other but with a dancer version of themselves, a curious choice, possibly suggesting the dancer as a sort of animus of the singer? A beautiful thought that isn’t quite coherent but makes for a pretty final image under a twinkling night sky. As the very last notes sound though the auditorium, Eurydice is once again laid behind the sickly yellow glass. Maybe there is no bargaining with death. No gods to decide when your suffering is enough. Maybe Orpheus has reached acceptance finally. It’s oddly comforting in its terrible bleakness.

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Nevertheless, I’m left wondering if I liked it. What was meant to be an interdisciplinary hybrid of dance and opera never really reaches amalgamation. The dancers are so highly trained they do look like a whole different species next to the trio of singers. The thing is, I do like McGregor tromping around the foyer in his vinyl platform boots with his entourage of neon clad designers, fashionistas and eccentrics. I like the audience he brings in. I think it’s healthy for opera, healthy for art and healthy for ENO. I’m just not quite sure this Eurydice felt very memorable to me …

Suzanne Frost
October 2019

Photography by Donald Cooper

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