Geoffrey Paterson on Orphée

This is an exciting moment for me: I’ll be conducting Netia Jones’s new production of Philip Glass’s Orphée for English National Opera.

A house debut with a company that I’ve known as an audience member since childhood, it’s particularly special to be part of the Orpheus-themed opening to ENO’s season, of which our production is the fourth.

Read our introductory guide to Philip Glass

The centrepiece of ENO’s Orpheus Series is Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, a gigantic masterpiece that’s been a totemic work for me since my teenage years, and I’ve had to pinch myself that I’ve been working in the company while this long-awaited new production (the opera’s first since its première over three decades ago) has been on stage.  The Mask of Orpheus is my personal reference point for epic treatment of the Orpheus myth in opera, and the contrast with Jean Cocteau’s eccentric cinematic interpretation of the story, adapted practically verbatim by Glass, couldn’t be more stark; likewise, Birtwistle and Glass, born 3 years apart in the mid-1930s, and whose operatic careers developed in parallel over the last half-century, would seem to represent two polarised aesthetic viewpoints on the role of music in drama.  I think, however, there is more to this than first meets the eye.

In a sense, Cocteau’s Orphée is not the Orpheus myth at all, but rather a hook on which he hangs an elaborately self-referential narrative concerning the poet’s quest for immortality.  Apart from the updated setting in mid-century Paris, the deviations from the traditional myth are both comic – Eurydice may only return if Orphée never looks at her (cue farcical ducking and diving around furniture) – and grandiose – Orphée finally achieves immortality as well as apparent domestic harmony through the loving self-sacrifice of Death herself.  Where Glass expands on Cocteau is in his sympathetic music for the long-suffering Eurydice, a character whose treatment by a bullying and egotistical husband is close to heart-breaking.

Read our introductory guide to Orphée

Birtwistle has returned numerous times to the Orpheus myth, and in his recent chamber opera The Corridor, which I conducted at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2015, he amplifies the dysfunctionality of Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship already suggested in The Mask of Orpheus, now explicitly shifting the focus of the story to Eurydice.  While Orpheus self-pityingly laments his loss, Eurydice considers whether her new life amongst the shades is in fact preferable to her former state of subservience to a self-obsessed husband.  Even in the bittersweet final reconciliation of Glass’ opera, there is a palpable sense that this Eurydice too might find true happiness with Orphée out of reach.

Of course, these undertones are suggested in music as much as by words, and I have been reflecting over the past weeks of rehearsal of Glass, as well as attending performances of Birtwistle, on how these two composers create their very different expressive worlds from surprisingly similar musical fundamentals.

Pulse and repetition are the building blocks of Glass’ music, and his manipulation of these elements (taking the latter to some extreme, even in a relatively varied work like Orphée) is the direct means by which he generates energy, tension and atmosphere.  The challenges for the conductor and orchestra should not be underestimated – the material may be simple, but these transparent layerings of patterns against a metronomic pulse leave nowhere to hide!  The entirely non-repetitive sung lines against this orchestral tapestry are often strikingly dissonant and, despite the entirely syllabic, conversational word-setting, they consistently pack an emotional punch.

Not much in the paragraph above needs rephrasing to describe how Birtwistle constructs the astonishing musical universe of The Mask of Orpheus.  Give or take a few words (‘transparency’ is not always the aim!), the obsessive use of repetition on a local and structural level is also central to the enormous power of Birtwistle’s music, and as for pulse, the monstrous ‘Continuum of the Ensemble of Hell’ in the second act is illustration enough that ‘perpetuum mobile’ is not the preserve of the minimalists.  And the question of dissonance and consonance in vocal writing is as pertinent to the atonal world of Birtwistle is as it is to the essentially diatonic music of Glass; the situation is simply inverted, with the emotional punch often delivered through disarming harmonic beauty and elaborate melisma.

I’ve perhaps taken the comparison as far as it ought to go!  But it’s a fascinating experience, conducting an opera by Glass for the first time, to discover the subtleties and sophistication of this music, and the extent to which the drama, suspense and comedy of Cocteau’s Orphée is embodied in “music with repetitive structures”, as the composer describes his work.  I hope our audiences take pleasure in a similar discovery!

Written by Geoffrey Paterson