Fontanals-Simmons and Hoare are standouts in ENO’s The Mask of Orpheus though orchestra gets glitterball

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle, The Mask of Orpheus: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins & James Henshaw (conductors). Electronic music realised by Barry Anderson. London Coliseum, 29.10.2019. (CC)

Peter Hoare, Claron McFadden and
Marta Fontanals-Simmons © Alastair Muir

Director – Daniel Kramer
Set designer – Lizzie Clachan
Costume designer – Daniel Lismore
Choreographer – Barnaby Booth
Lighting and Video designer – Peter Mumford
Sound designer – Ian Dearden

Orpheus the Man – Peter Hoare
Orpheus the Myth / Hades – Daniel Norman
Orpheus the Hero – Matthew Smith
Eurydice the Woman – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Eurydice the Myth / Persephone – Claire Barnett Jones
Eurydice the Hero – Alfa Marks
Aristaeus the Man – James Cleverton
Aristaeus the Myth / Charon – Simon Bailey
Aristaeus the Hero – Leo Hedman
The Oracle of the Dead / Hecate – Claron McFadden
The Caller / Judge of the Dead – Robert Hayward
First Priest / Judge of the Dead – William Morgan
Second Priest / Judge of the Dead – David Ireland
Third Priest / Judge of the Dead – Simon Wilding
First Woman / Fury 1 – Charlotte Shaw
Second Woman / Fury 2 – Katie Coventry
Third Woman / Fury 3 – Katie Stevenson
The Lover / Titan – Joan Aguilà Cuevas
Dionysus / Venus / Titan – Ripp Greatbatch
Lycurgus / Titan – Stefano De Luca

The beginning of October 2019 brought Gluck’s take on the Orpheus myth in the Berlioz edition (review). This is a myth that has inspired across time, from Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo of 1619 (review of a March 2018 Amsterdam performance), to one of the greatest of all, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s behemoth take, modestly referred to by the composer as a ‘lyrical tragedy’, with its complex libretto by Peter Zinovieff, its multiple simultaneous tellings of versions of the story and its asequential way with events.

The original run of this in May 1986 was one of the seminal experiences of my (then young) musical life, and few experiences have topped it since. The feeling that here was something important was palpable, that here was a composer who could forge a connection between the now and an ancient then – mythic events, and therefore outside of time and space but which touch each and every one of us. A Barbican concert performance of the second act acted as reminder of the work’s stature, not to mention its decibel level (a performance that featured the original Orpheus, Phillip Langridge: part of the Endless Parade Birtwistle Festival on January 10, 1988), but surely it is in the theatre that the work will shine.

Astonishingly, this is only Birtwistle’s second full opera (following on from Punch and Judy, 1967: there were however two intervening chamber operas, the ‘dramatic pastoral’ Down by the Greenwood Side, 1968/9, and Bow Down, 1977). The contrast between The Mask of Orpheus and the ‘mechanical pastoral’ that followed a mere two years later, Yan Tan Tethera, could hardly be greater (the Queen Elizabeth Hall premiere on August 7, 1986 still resonates in my memory).

Before we get to the production, let’s talk about the performance. There is a reason for this: the excellence of the performers should be honoured and lauded at all costs. The orchestra required is huge and multifaceted: a plethora of flute-types from piccolo to bass flute, three soprano saxophones (doubling bamboo pipes, recorders and conches) … one could go on, noting perhaps the complement of trombones (six) is larger than horns, trumpets (four each) or tubas (two). Orpheus was associated with the lute, which here becomes harp, three thereof, all amplified. Not to mention Noh harp, electric mandolin … and no fewer than seven percussionists. Martyn Brabbins marshalled his forces with expertise and confidence – rarely has the ENO Orchestra sounded so involved. Brabbins was actually second conductor on the 1987 recording, assisting Andrew Davis (the premiere run was conducted by Elgar Howarth assisted by Paul Daniel) and so knows the score more than most. And how it showed. Only, perhaps, in the second act could one have wished for greater volume: but that is because those who attended the Barbican concert performance of that act were pretty much blasted against the Barbican walls; for most, it was plenty loud enough. But there were moments of heart-stopping beauty, too.

Birtwistle’s preoccupation with myth is, you may not wish to pardon the pun, legendary. So is his uncompromising stance. The Zinovieff production certainly honoured that latter outlook – what resonates strongest is the parallel telling of different versions of the same story and the fact we were aware at all times that this was concerned with myth. Daniel Kramer’s take comes from an entirely different angle, and in doing so sets up considerable friction between stage action and musical machination. Perhaps the best way to put this is to refer to Birtwistle’s own Earth Dances (1986), another piece whose – relatively sparsely attended, I seem to remember – premiere was unforgettable. In that piece, Birtwistle seems to echo the structure of the planet itself by having the layers of the planet’s internal construction ‘dance’. Here, in Mask, we have two immediate layers, music and production. But instead of dancing, there is friction. First, though, the singing, and dancing.

We have multiple players – singers, dancers – for characters. So, there is Orpheus the Man (the brilliant, tireless Peter Hoare), Orpheus The Myth (the excellent Daniel Norman) and Orpheus the Hero (the amazing dancer Matthew Smith). Euridice and Aristaeus both have three people each; for Euridice the dancer (or ‘aerialist’) Alfa Marks was the epitome of grace and beauty of movement, the perfect complement to Matthew Smith. If ever there was a definition in depicting sexuality as pure beauty, this pair had it.

If Peter Hoare had an aura of vocal indestructability – and how he displayed that in the second act procession of arches – he was absolutely equalled by the astonishing Marta Fontanals-Simmons, whose recent disc I and Silence with superb pianist Lana Bode on Delphian was such an unforgettable eye-opener. Fonanals-Simmons has real stage presence and threw herself physically into the role. But it was vocally that she was most mesmerising, a perfect mix of power and musicality – and accuracy. Birtwistle’s endless melodies, it seems, come as easily to her as a Schubert song.

Great to see an ENO Harewood Artist in amongst the cast, the excellent Claire Barnett-Jones as Euridice the Myth/Persephone. James Cleverton was a strong Aristaeus the Man, while Simon Bailey, making his ENO debut, similarly triumphed as Aristaeus the Myth/Charon.

We have seen how there are groups of three – a holy number before the Christians got to the idea of a Holy Trinity – for the main characters, plus there are three Priests, three Judges of the Dead, plus three Women and three Furies. But there is one character who bucks the trend and is herself three-in-one: Hecate. A liminal Goddess, Hecate (pronounced ‘He-ka-tay’) is sometimes called ‘Hecate triformis’ and is shown facing three ways. This part, along with that of The Oracle of the Dead, was taken by the miraculous soprano Claron McFaddon, whose association with knotty contemporary music is legendary. If Fontanals-Simmons’s Euridice – at least her reading of the part – was at heart lyrical, McFaddon finds expression in vocal hurdles. With Robert Hayward as a strong The Caller and superbly chosen triplicities for the Priests and the Women, this was ENO at its finest.

Shorn of the music, the production might well have sometimes seemed appropriate for the circus of Alban Berg’s Lulu; at other times, it was Turnage’s Anna Nicole that sprang to mind, particularly when it came to the preternaturally mammoth-breasted – and behinded – nurses. And this is where the dissonance between music and production kicks in. Clever on all levels, with brilliantly managed projections, it revelled in its own cleverness. 400,000 (yes, four hundred thousand!) Swarowski crystals featured: a pity that when a crystal skull was revealed at a crucial moment, then, it looked for all the world like the Strictly glitterball trophy. Whereas in the original production one felt the distance of myth, here we were in a modern apartment of what may have been a has-been rock star. After all, rock guitars adorned one wall at one point, and discs in frames, accolades of achievement, hung on another. The room in which it was set was modern, clinical like a hotel room. The sense of relevance no matter what the time period was lost; as was the ability of the audience to apply the myth to themselves from the starting point of a more neutral background.

The so-called ‘Passing Clouds’, retellings of the myths of Dionysus, Lycurgus and Pantheus, and the ‘Allegorical Flowers’, retelling the myths of Anemone and the Lotus took place in closed-off boxes, triumphs for the costume department. Here the electronic component came to the fore, realised at IRCAM, Paris by Barry Anderson (who sadly died in 1987, shortly after the premiere). What was notable about the electronics was that they have not aged one bit, as telling and effective today as they were back then – the same cannot be said for some other composers, sadly. The projection of the sound was perfectly judged by Ian Dearden.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus remains unmissable, if only to hear the score performed with such preternatural expertise. But while Fontanals-Simmons and Hoare were the standouts amongst a super-strong cast, it was surely the orchestra that should be given the crystal glitterball.

Colin Clarke