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The Mask of Orpheus

by on 19 October 2019

Blast of Phosphorescent Psychedelia

The Mask of Orpheus

by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, libretto by Peter Zinovieff

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 19th November

Review by Mark Aspen

Exotic, excessive, eccentric … and that was just the audience!   The buzz at the first-night of ENO’s ambitiously flamboyant new production of Birtwistle The Mask of Orpheus was electrifying.

The Mask of Orpheus has not been seen as a fully-staged opera since its premiere at ENO in 1986, a third of a century ago, for this is a monumental piece, at nearly three and half hours long Wagnerian in length, musically and technically demanding. To call it complex would be an understatement, for here we have a creative titan, intricately multi-dimensional, not only in its narrative and artistic expressions, but in its musical and technical structures.

The narrative, as expressed in composition and libretto, is described as non-linear, but it is more than that; its chronology is circular, or as Birtwistle put it “more precisely, I move in concentric circles”. Hence, the story of Orpheus striving to repossess Eurydice, his dead wife, and rescue her from hell is told and retold through different “what-if” scenarios. After all, we know of the ancient myth through retelling ranging back to Ovid, Virgil or Plato and beyond, each retelling with variants on the narrative theme.

Moreover, the opera explores three manifestations of the psyche of each of the three main characters, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus (the apiarist god, who seduces Eurydice), as a human, a myth and a hero. These three expressions of the characters act out their own versions of the story simultaneously, which calls for a tripartite setting on the stage.

Birtwistle sets his extensive score for an orchestra bereft of its bowed string section, but expanded with a battery of percussion instruments, and with guitars and harp. This is augmented further by electronic music, originally realised for Birtwistle by the late Barry Anderson, including the creations of “auras” and interludes comprising electronic transformations of the sounds of a harp. The traditional and contemporary sections of the orchestra each has their own conductor.

For director Daniel Kramer, this epic production forms his swansong as ENO’s Artistic Director and, my, is he going out on a bang! His The Mask of Orpheus is an extravaganza that threatens to overwhelm the senses with its lavish opulence and sheer scale. It is very much design-led.

Kramer has co-curated ENO’s Orpheus Series, which takes four different approaches to retelling the Orpheus myth via with four very different composers and four very different directors, but all on variations a single set by the prominent designer Lizzie Clachan.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Motivated by multiple visual symbolism, Clachan’s white tiled basic set now incorporates many eclectic elements, ranging from Japanese screens to iced water dispensers, in settings across gardens and bathrooms. Peter Mumford’s lighting design throbs with vibrant fluorescence, dynamic in its changes from cool and delicate into vivid and saturated colour. However all this is trumped by cult stylist Daniel Lismore’s debut stage costume designs. Outrageously camp and glitzy, they dominate the overall design, and indeed threaten to swamp the production with their eye-catching self-indulgence. There is a clarifying colour coding for the character: Orpheus and his alter egos wear red, Eurydice and her many manifestations are in blue, whereas the forms of Aristaeus are yellowy-greens. If this were not enough, 400,000 Swarovski zirconia (plus a few diamonds we are told) are stitched into the costumes in an overdose of bling. The riot of crystals scatters Mumford’s light so that every surface becomes a glitter-ball or a Newton’s prism. So we have glittering gauntlets and a diamond skull that, For the Love of God, would make Damien Hirst envious. (It even caused quite a stir in the jewellery world, getting an article in Professional Jeweller magazine.)  We can safely say that Lismore’s design is brilliant, literally so.

In spite of the impact of this blast of phosphorescent psychedelia, it does not overpower the force of Birtwistle’s musical; in fact is seems complementary. Hoarse woodwinds, centred on Birtwistle’s beloved clarinets, are accentuated by throaty brass. In the most dramatic moments the full expression of the score punches through, impetuously punctuating the emotion, and when the full weight of the percussion weighs in the result is hair-raising. Then there are quiet moments with the ululation of the electronics adding a sense of pathos. The orchestra has conductors who extract the full essence of the Birtwistle score. Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s Music Director and an eminent disciple of Birtwistle, unifies and paces the orchestra while James Henshaw co-ordinates the metallic edgy feel of the less conventional instruments and of the powerful percussion.

This deliria of invention is startlingly surreal, and quite appropriately surreal, for the exposition of the story is as a dream, with a dream’s sublimated desires and frightful fears. The dream generates graphic images of sexual ecstasy and of violent horror in juxtaposition. Hanging, flailing, cannibalism are set against carnal joy. Violent rape is set against the tenderness of marriage.

We first see Orpheus the Man struggling out of a deep bath, a creaking aged rock-star of a figure in his Beverley Hills mansion. But is it a bath, or a tomb … or a womb? He strives to put together the elements of speech, finding the basic phonemes to voice his thoughts. Then on to the chilled drinks dispenser where he finds his alter egos, Orpheus the Myth and Orpheus the Hero. They drink Mary-less Bloody Marys.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

This, you see, is a production overloaded with symbolism, visual, musical and physical. It is dense with symbolism, much only half-understood. What are all the babies about? And the poor little mites always come to a violent end, dismembered, cannibalised, put through a liquidiser. Is that where the Bloody Marys come from?

The stamina of Peter Hoare as Orpheus the Man, almost continually on stage during this marathon opera, is remarkable. The force of his full tenor voice is unflagging. Particularly demanding is his relating his journey into the underworld in Act II, in which Orpheus must surmount the barriers of seventeen “Arches”, which form the bridge to overcome his own grief.

Much of the evocation of Orpheus’ journey is related to memory and indeed to the authenticity of memory. Could his memories be accurate, or could they be a dream? The fragmented ambiguity in Peter Zinovieff’s libretto gives us less than a few clues.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Eurydice the Woman has an equally harrowing time of things, and Marta Fontanals-Simmons expresses the deep pathos of the role, her rich voice imbuing the role with a haunting melancholy. Eurydice’s motif is one of birth and rebirth: at one point she is battered to death with long clubs by the Judges of the Dead, who feast hungrily on her entrails. Her alter ego Eurydice the Myth is abused with abandon. In this role, Harewood Artist Eurydice Claire Barnett-Jones is entrancing. These two mezzos are taken on a roller-coaster ride across their range by Birtwistle’s score.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

As Orpheus the Myth, Daniel Norman complements the Orpheus tenor roles. He seems to send much of his time on stage attended by pseudo-nurses come mortuary attendants, the erstwhile Furies, here outrageously pneumatic comic-book phantasies of the big bust-big bum hourglass women of the schoolboy imagination.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Aristaeus the Man and Aristaeus the Myth, incarnations of a god, but one with the evil intent of taking Eurydice to hell one way or another, are sung in the baritone register, as menacing yet seductive figures by James Cleverton and Simon Bailey. Both are clad in honeycomb-yellow puffer jackets, appropriate for the god of beekeeping. Bees feature strongly in both the design and the music of The Mask of Orpheus.

Impressive in their stage presence are the remarkable coloratura soprano Claron McFadden as The Oracle of the Dead; and Robert Hayward, whose richly robust bass as The Caller creates a character far different from his cuddly rogue Falstaff in his earlier role this summer.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Kramer’s The Mask of Orpheus has a strong element of physical theatre, embracing dance, aerial ballet and clowning in addition to the mimed parts called for by the original score and libretto. The roles of Orpheus the Hero, Eurydice the Hero and Aristaeus the Hero are consummately enacted by the aerialists, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman. Their scenes within scenes are amongst both the most sensual and the most violent in the piece, but yet encompass an ethereal and enigmatic sentiment. Often working high above the stage, a powerfully athletic interpretation is put on violent acts, such as the hanging of Orpheus or the rape of Eurydice. Sensual scenes are lithe but tender acts of joy. The final scene of Orpheus and Eurydice suspended between life and death in a transcendental duet of love and grief is an unforgettable image.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

Dance and mime feature in the interpolated “Passing Cloud” and “Allegorical Flowers”, episodes from Ovid that are interposed within the concentric circle chronology. These are realised in a transparent chamber that that makes a slow transition across the width of the stage, a display case of metaphoric curios. These punctuate or puncture the unfolding of the primary parallel plot(s) at moments of crisis or calm. These may be Arcadian, a travesty in which a Botticelli Venus meets a priapic pan; or they may be atavistic horror stories, manic Maenads lynch a hapless Pentheus. These all give opportunity for further flights of fancy from Lismore’s costume designs. Witness the carbuncular creatures that could have been created by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who are flayed of their grotesque skins to reveal other monsters inside, who are again flayed to reveal mankind in their nucleus, a sort of macabre series of Babushka dolls.

'The Mask of Orpheus' Opera performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum, UK

After all those hours, when the octogenarian Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Zinovieff were applauded tumultuously when they were brought on stage, most of the audience were reeling punch-drunk by all the excesses of the production.

However, when the hangover has passed, and one has chance to absorb what the colourful, grotesquerie of Kramer’s The Mask of Orpheus is all about, the question comes to mind, has the extravagant spectacle of this production really illuminated Birtwistle’s four dimensional epic, or has it engulfed and stifled it?

But then again, as they say in Hades, what the hell!

Mark Aspen
October 2019

Photography by Alistair Muir

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