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by on 16 November 2019

American Minimalism Meets French Surrealism


by Philip Glass, based on the film by Jean Cocteau

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 29th November

Review by Eugene Broad

The English National Opera at the London Coliseum revisited the underworld for a final time this season, in a precisely-paced and crisp production of Philip Glass’s Orphée, directed deliciously in an ENO debut for Netia Jones.


Glass based – or in his view, reflected – his opera on the 1950 Jean Cocteau film by the same name, the first of an operatic trilogy driven by Cocteau’s work. This idea of reflection is core to the philosophy of the production, mirrors acting as portals between the corporeal and Stygian dimensions. But there is a constant reflection on the earlier versions of the myth of Orpheus within the stagecraft, composition, and life experiences of Glass and Cocteau themselves.

ENOCocteau and Glass’s Orphée is a celebrated Parisian poet, who after a string of successes has become self-obsessed with his fame, but has simultaneously lost his creative muse. A drunken brawl leaves his young poet-rival, Cégeste, dead – with some implicating Orphée in his death. Cégeste’s mysterious benefactor, the Princess, instructs Orphée to help her (inter-dimensional) chauffeur, Heurtebise, to transport Cégeste’s body. Witnessing the Princess apparently bring Cégeste back to life and travel through a mirror, Orphée becomes obsessed by the Princess – who in the underworld is some kind of civil servant in the department of deaths.

Taking a shaken Orphée home, Heurtebise falls in love with Orphée’s wife, Eurydice – the mirror inverse of Orphée’s love for the Princess. After an accident orchestrated by the Princess, Eurydice dies and with Heurtebise’s instruction and guidance, Orphée is taught how to travel to the underworld.

After Orphée confesses his reciprocated love to the Princess, and Heurtebise confessing to Eurydice, a humorous Kafkaesque tribunal allow Orphée and Eurydice to return to their correct realm.


The tribunal in the underworld

The usual Orphic condition is established – Orphée may never look at Eurydice again. Orphée – here possibly intentionally – breaks the condition, both returning to the underworld. The Princess orders Heurtebise to reset Orphée’s and Eurydice’s lives, committing an act of sacrificial love, with Orphée and Eurydice having had their memories of the underworld now also wiped.

ENOAs Jones comments, “Orphée is an opera of a film of a play of a poem of an opera” and her production and direction makes this clear. All elements of the stagework, set and production hint at the film origins of Orphée. Dynamism is given by impressive moving sets and projection work, which never distract from the story or narrative as a whole. The fluidity and aesthetic of the production and set incorporate a cheerful 1950s aesthetic (in the world of the living) and a greyscale Stygian underworld – as if a black and white film. Moving projections show the underworld as bombed out ruins, as lost souls aimlessly stumble through them – going hollow with the passage of time.

Musically, Glass’s composition doesn’t shine here. There are his usual signatures – ostinato, breathless woodwind, the steady thrum of strings. There are very few moments of brilliance within the composition, with the most stirring and memorable motifs in the second act. However masterfully Geoffrey Paterson conducts ENO’s orchestra, Glass hasn’t given much to the production; although suffering loss of his own at the time of composition, his work here feels more routine rather than inspired.

That isn’t to say the composition is weak or shoddy. It’s consistent, and clearly has a direction. There are Gallic reminders that Glass studied in Paris in the mid-20th century, and references to ancient Greek pentatonic minor modal harmonies used to great effect in the Stygian scenes. But where the production is so sleek and cinematic – truly feeling more like a scored film – it’s a shame for Glass’s composition to feel almost forgettable. But perhaps that is just a testament to how tight and flowing Jones’s modern and multimedia take on Orphée is.


As to be expected from the ENO, the singers are all incredibly highly polished – surely enough to see one’s own reflection. Nicky Spence’s performance as the interdimensional chauffeur Heurtebise had a delicacy and sensitive emotionality to it, only recently dead and torn between both realms. Jennifer France, marking her ENO debut as the Princess, similarly commanded authority vocally and with her stage presence – undoubtedly on the path of becoming a solid ENO favourite. Nicholas Lester as Orphée resonantly expressed himself and generated empathy for a poet at times obsessively narcissistic, but at other times touchingly selfless. Sarah Tynan reprises Eurydice, having performed in Orpheus and Eurydice, on this occasion being spurned for the Princess but beautifully performing with a genuine tenderness and warmth for Orphée. Anthony Gregory as Cégeste gave a lyricism and warmth of timbre which complimented his role as a vivacious and brilliant rival poet to Orphée.

This ENO production joins the other excellent performances of Philip Glass’s work it has put on relatively recently – the jaw-dropping Satyagraha and the Olivier Award-winning Akhnaten. Much like those productions, Orphée is not one which should be missed.

Eugene Broad
November 2019

Photography by Catherine Ashmore

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