ENO’s production and performance of Glass’s Orphée has a vitality that almost throbs

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glass, Orphée (sung in an English translation by Netia Jones and Emma Jenkins): Soloists, Orchestra of English National Opera / Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). London Coliseum, 15.11.2019. (CC)

Jennifer France (The Princess) & Nicholas Lester (Orphée) (c) Catherine Ashmore

Director/Costume designer/Video designer – Netia Jones
Set designs – Lizzie Clachan
Lighting – Lucy Carter
Choreographer – Danielle Agami
Video and Animation – Lightmap

Orphée – Nicolas Lester
Eurydice – Sarah Tynan
The Princess – Jennifer France
Hautebise – Nicky Spence
Cégeste – Anthony Gregory
Reporter – William Morgan
Poet – Simon Shibambu
Judge/Commissioner – Clive Bayley
Aglaonice – Rachael Lloyd
The Glazier/Booth Technician – Adam Sullivan

The first in Philip Glass’s three-opera Cocteau Trilogy, Orphée (1991, premiered 1993) is a masterpiece: musically, but also musico-dramatically. It is utterly remarkable in how it follows the trajectory of Cocteau’s 1950 film so accurately (only really omitting a scene in which the central male character, Orpheus, a successful poet, is mobbed by fans, showing this in shadow play instead; the adaptation to stage is listed as being by Glass, edited by Robert Brustein).

In fact, two trilogies intersect here. Cocteau’s film was actually part of his trilogy of Orpheus films, preceded by Le sang d’un poète (1932, The Blood of a Poet) and ending in 1960 with Le Testament d’Orphée. Glass’s opera was part of a different, Cocteau-derived, trilogy and was succeeded by La Belle et la Bête (1994, based on Cocteau’s 1946 film) and the ‘dance-opera’ Les Enfants terribles (1996, based on the 1929 novel which was later cinematised by Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville in 1950). The world premiere recording of Glass’s Orphée was issued in 2009 on Orange Mountain Music (conducted by Anne Manson), taken from a set of performances in November 2009, and was sung in French.

ENO is, of course, intimately entwined with the music of Glass, and two operas from the another trilogy have been critically acclaimed: Satyagraha and Akhnaten (here in 2016 and here in 2019, with Einstein on the Beach yet to be staged). There is a very personal element to Orphée, however: Glass’s wife, Candy Jernigan, had died in 1991 and the Orpheus myth deals with, among other things, the pain of separation. The music is masterly, with more variety and even lyricism than one might expect, from the bustling local colour of the café music of the opening scene to the lyrical love music to the mystery of the Underworld itself.

Cocteau’s film relocated the Orpheus myth to post-war Paris, with the poet visiting the Underworld with a dark, black-haired figure who is but one incarnation of Death itself. Death stalks the action, right from the off, when up-and-coming poet Cégeste, is killed in the café brawl. The Underworld scenes were largely shot in the ruins of the Saint-Cyr Military Academy and include a highly enigmatic figure that drifts across our vision tantalisingly, The Glazier (Adam Sullivan in the opera). All this is relevant not only to the scenography here – sets by Lizzie Clachan, who forms a constant in ENO’s Orpheus explorations – but because director Netia Jones, making her ENO debut, has snippets of the film projected onstage during the course of the opera. Mirrors offered the gateway to the next world in the film (the mirror’s surface there ceding to a pair of gloved hands at one point because the glass was replaced by a vat of mercury to give the effect of the hands moving through the mirror’s surface). The predominant black, grey and white in this production was offset by the rampant pinks of Eurydice’s décor, an acknowledgement of her vitality perhaps. In the film, it is the actor Jean Marais who is superb as Orphée; baritone Nicholas Lester, who sang the title role at ENO, seemed to have his hair modelled on Marais’s and, although not as charismatic as Marais (who could be?) seemed to relive the part. The entire film is available for free on YouTube, but with the dialogue sadly replaced by an improvised electronic soundtrack (there are subtitles, though).

Before the opera even started, a film of Cocteau was shown in black-and-white on an onstage monitor while a silhouette of a boxer sparred first against no one and then with an actor. We were entering another, enigmatic, world before even a note was sounded. Glass’s major achievement is in honouring Cocteau’s genius while layering on his own. It feels like a meeting of giants, and we are the privileged recipients in the liminal space of their union. Jones’s production acknowledges this intersection by explicitly inviting in the film itself. The film examines aspects of other realities not just via a mirror but also via a radio, and those broadcasts play an important part in the opera – enigmatic broadcasts that fascinate and eventually obsess Orphée. The tale ends with the Orphée and Eurydice restored, but the journey is remarkable, not least in some of what they encounter in the Underworld itself.

Geoffrey Paterson is a fine Glass conductor, finding real energy in Glass’s textures (relishing the chopping and changings panels of the Act II Interlude, for example). Glass’s music works in interesting ways, as while the orchestration seems a vital part of the equation, Paul Barnes’s arrangement of seven movements into a piano suite shows not only how effective it is on keyboard but how we hear the music in a different, more objectivised, way. Glass’s score requires a special sort of conductor who understands how to change the wiring of his players to enter into a different realm; ENO has been luck in the past in this regard and continues to be so with Paterson, whose pacing was superb throughout.

The singing was of a stellar standard, equal surely to anything ‘them up the road’ could offer. Lester took on the role of Orphée with all the style, panache and ego-driven confidence the part required, offering a vocal performance to match, often of great beauty. His fascination with The Princess was completely believable. His Eurydice was Sarah Tynan, seen earlier, in October, in ENO’s Orpheus series as Gluck’s Eurydice (review). She was on top form for the Glass as well (she excelled in the Gluck), as the vulnerable, ailing wife. Matching Tynan in excellence was Jennifer France’s The Princess. Making her ENO debut, France has a clarion soprano of great beauty and flexibility; all elements of which were on display. Not only a vocal triumph, France encapsulated the dangerous, enigmatic beauty of the Princess. France incidentally won the 2018 Critic’s Circle Emerging Talent (Voice) Award, and on present evidence justifiably so.

The Princess’s chauffeur, Hautebise, found luxury casting in Nicky Spence – his forbidden love for Eurydice was well explored, his voice ever-seductive, and it was wonderful to see the talented Simon Shibambu in the smaller role of Poet. The small but vital role of the pesky, intrusive reporter was taken by ENO Harewood Artist William Morgan, of whom I would like to see more of on the hallowed ENO stage. And Clive Bayley, as Judge in the Underworld’s panel that punishes transgression against the ‘normal’ order of things, confirms that his acting is now much more in congruence with the special nature of his voice. As Eurydice’s friend – and leader of the women-only Ligue des Femmes – Rachael Lloyd is a strong Aglaonice.

This is a very special evening, the production and performances of a vitality that almost throbs. A fabulous event that honours both Glass’s and Cocteau’s genius.

Colin Clarke

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