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Traditionally, the essence of the classical myth of Orpheus is perceived as an exploration of the limits we will go to for the one we love. Personally, I see it also as an exploration of what love truly means: is it a deeply profound concern for their happiness, or a tenacious, obsessive craving for them to be yours? If both, what happens when these two aspects conflict?
In the case of Gluck’s 1762 Opera Orpheus and Eurydice, there exists this very conflict. When Eurydice (Sarah Tynan) is snatched from Orpheus (Alice Coote)’s embrace and swept away to the underworld, so soon after the ringing of wedding bells, he is distraught. Belonging to the blessed, Eurydice settles down in the Elysium meadows – an idyllic realm, separate from Hades’ darker counterpart, of ever-flowing rivers, fragrant winds and eudaimonic bliss. If love is in this equation, then should Orpheus be dragging her back to the mortal world of sickness and suffering, as if she were a prize to be won? Perhaps the essence of this opera is actually how love, especially the grief-stricken variety, can galvanise us to do anything – including transgress dimensions – in order to have them in our arms; even if this means perhaps selfishly compromising their happiness. By the end, we discover the answer.
The instant Orpheus’ grief sets in, the back of the stage is devoured by a pixelated, black and white photograph of the ocean. Not even the moon can make the ocean’s waves roll in a static image, nor can it shift his grief. In the absence of Eurydice’s vibrant chromaticity, his life spirals into valueless monochrome. Like a fleet of ships sailing godforsaken seas, the dancers sail in synchrony with the elegance of an ancient vessel rowing around the Cyclades islands. As a university student of Greek, I am hardwired to read the Odyssey in everything remotely Hellenic I encounter; so, as his every minute of grief drags on like a painful eternity, it can be likened to Odysseus’ seemingly endless voyage. Orpheus’ sorrowful lament potently evokes pity in the audience. Every inch of his body is consumed by lethargy. As he shrinks to the ground and curls up – a grown man reduced to a frightened child-like state – we can feel his heart battered against the rocks, shipwrecked.
An avant-garde edit to the traditional role of Cupid/Eros, the personification of Love (Soraya Mafi) in the three-woman cast was a refreshing delight. She is tasked with delivering to Orpheus an ultimatum: he is granted access to the Underworld to reclaim Eurydice, but only under the sole condition that he resists gazing upon her face until safe in the sunlight. Playfully fluttering around like butterflies in the stomach of a freshly-smitten adolescent, Mafi triumphantly captured a plethora of idiosyncrasies particular to the familiar yet ever-surprising peculiarity of love: charm, grace, and hope, but also mystery.
The relatively minimalist set was without a doubt compensated by the aesthetic glory of the dancers. With Wayne McGregor, one of the nation’s most respected choreographers, this was a given. Rather than being a deficiency, the largely empty set design had the benefit of the acrobatic dancers victoriously captivating our undivided attention. Violently spinning and kicking, the Furies guarding the entrance to the Underworld were an electric whirlwind palette of neon red, yellow and blue. Through sycophantic melody, Orpheus’ pleas elegantly and visibly softened the Furies. Again, this is set against an expanse of monochromal pixels. This time, a flickering pattern of white noise. Like a 20th century television that falls into monochromal distress in the absence of transmission signal, without his lover Orpheus loses all hope of functioning as before. She had played the role of the signal, guiding his soul and filling his days with bottomless joy. Without her, he is lost.
By the end of the performance, we discover the answer to the question of the essence of love. Although Eurydice is offered maximal rapture in the Elysium meadows, this is simply and plainly inadequate. Not even all the world’s pearls and superficial joys could hold a candle to the prospect of being reunited with her lover; for “hearts forever bound together find on earth a sweeter heaven”.
Launching this season of four operas revolving around the Orpheus myth, Orpheus and Eurydice has quintessentially set the tone. Gluck having stuck closer to the myth than the upcoming triad, his work functions as a fundamental prerequisite, laying down the foundation for the more experimental upcoming operas.
Determinedly lacking in animal transformation, gruesome torture, incest or even enucleation, Orpheus and Eurydice is a story that particularly lends itself to a romantic and emotionally affecting production even in 2019. Despite the varied wackiness of myth this plot is one which is universally understandable. As the saying goes; death may come to us all but enucleation only to some. This is a fantastic story where grief, not the omnipotence of the Gods, is the most extraordinary power present. The story of a man so devastated by the death of his wife he will go to hell and beyond to find her.
The team putting on this English translation of Gluck’s 1762 ‘Orpheo ed Euridice’ certainly intended to create a timeless production using this epic tale of loss. In the program, Director and Choreographer Wayne McGregor states that all the show really wants to do is to present the narrative simply and effectively. To unravel it like a ‘golden thread’ (very clever McGregor) throughout the production. Sadly, these aims and intentions were not quite realised. The show’s opening Act did not have enough emotional sincerity for it to be a version of Orpheus and Eurydice that could rely on the beauty of the narrative or successfully convey the timeless emotionality of the story. When grief is the fundamental power pushing the plot forward it is essential that Orpheus’ emotion springs from him fresh and real. The ending of the show managed this and was completely and utterly magical, but the production simply took too long to reach that point.
The show begins with a strange physical theatre sequence depicting the death of Eurydice. What really let this sequence down was a failure to establish the relationship between Orpheus and Eurydice throughout Eurydice’s dying days. Eurydice instead is presented as dying alone with a husband who periodically faffs around her. The effect of this is that it seems entirely plausible that the fatal injection we see administered to the hospital-gown clad Eurydice is a decision made due to her husband’s sheer incompetency! Not the best way to introduce a protagonist. This gave Alice Coote, playing Orpheus, an impossible task. To suddenly summon up a realistic response to loss given such a weak beginning is not possible, and the fact that the chorus of mourners had been put on the naughty step and banished to the pit meant that the scene of mourning surrounding Eurydice’s corpse felt depleted. One could not gain any sense of this woman or any sense that she was truly missed. The ensemble of dancers although undeniably exciting to watch and very skilled, did not pack enough of an emotional punch on their own, more of a slightly sad stroke.
Coote had also been suffering from a viral infection in the weeks preceding the opening night and there was a weakness to her vocal performance that sadly spoke of illness and not of grief. In the closing aria of Act I, more power and support was needed in her lower register and better breath control in the runs. An uncommon complaint about the Mezzo-Soprano. Given Orpheus’ passage through hell entirely relies on his virtuosic musical ability this threw another spanner in the now dodgy plumbing works supporting the plot. Another factor hampering Coote’s performance was her costume designed by Louise Grey. It had the strange effect of appearing to be a mixture of futuristic Japanese streetwear and knock-off Adidas which perhaps could have been a successful costume on someone of greater height and athletic form but sadly swamped Coote. Another costuming faux-pas was the costumes designed for the dance ensemble in hell. The straps of neon material adorning their bodies felt like a lollipop man had decided to become an exotic dancer. This would perhaps be cool on the catwalk but a served as distraction from what was actually excellent choreography. A moment in which the ensemble, collapsed on top of one another in a pile and started to breathe in unison in a manner suggestive of a sleeping monster was captivating. It cast a spell of fear and anticipation on the audience, but calmer costuming may have detracted less from the gravity of the moment.
Once Orpheus and Eurydice, sung excellently by Sarah Tynan, are united in the Underworld the Opera did however start to really pick up. Coote saved her pipes for the final Act and this meant that the skill of the orchestra, excellently and crisply conducted by Harry Bicket, finally felt matched vocally. Particularly, in the duet work between the two singers the rise and fall of emotion of their emotions was delineated well. The closing moments were strikingly touching with Coote and Tynan dancing with one another’s dancer doubles before finally coming together only for Tynan’s body to be carried back behind the orange screen she lay behind whilst dead at the start of the opera. This left an eerie and moving sense in the auditorium. A sense that the journey we were taken on may have all been psychological. We have simply explored the mind of one experiencing Grief.
ENO’s new season has got its season of Orpheus operas off to a good start with Gluck’s Orfeo. The Orpheus myth is catnip to composers as a demonstration of the power of music, as he descends to the realm of the dead to retrieve his dead wife. He is allowed to take her back as long as he doesn’t look at her until they are back in the realm of the living. Inevitably, he does and loses her a second time, with different results in different versions of the myth and the opera.
The season starts with Gluck’s version. There was something pleasingly old fashioned about his Orfeo – written for castrato or high tenor – being sung by mezzo, Alice Coote. Going down the Viardot-Ferrier-Baker route – noble though it is – isn’t an obvious approach, these days, when we are at peak countertenor. Coote – despite an announcement that she hadn’t thrown off a three week virus – had a triumph. Arguably, her lightish voice is tested to its limits in a huge auditorium like this. But she never abused it. She went on a journey and had plenty in reserve for Che faro, without seeming to hold back earlier. When she came under strain, it was because of the unbearable strain of bereavement, the anguish forced out of her with the controlled abandon that only the finest artists achieve. Her singing provided a well-graduated range of variations in tone colour and volume, with superbly musical phrasing. But all of this would have meant nothing without an innate eloquence that made every phrase mean something.
The ENO orchestra somehow manages to absorb the best of period instrument practice on modern instruments: big enough for the space, but fleet and flexible enough under Harry Bicket’s gripping musical direction to sound idiomatic and avoid the wrong kind of self-indulgent romanticism. The Chorus were invisible off stage, in order to provide space for the dancers, but the intensity of their singing demonstrated total involvement.
There was nothing old fashioned about Wayne McGregor’s production, except perhaps that it didn’t seem to probe the meaning of the Orpheus myth with much rigour. Most productions need to question the point of the prohibition against looking directly at Eurydice. On the face of it, it’s arbitrary opera plot hell – an excuse for an aria rather than sensible drama. Eurydice – beautifully sung by Sarah Tynan – was understandably upset and angry at Orpheus’s apparent indifference. McGregor’s production was fussy and didn’t always seem to know what it was doing. What was the point of the ribbon that Orfeo wore briefly as a blindfold? Did we really need a curtain down between acts one and two? Why did Orfeo sit on a plastic chair? What was the significance of a male dancer for Orfeo when the singer Orpheus was pretty non-binary (not that anything was made of this)? Why did this Orpheus not have a lyre or any musical instrument?
McGregor’s choreography was beautiful in its own right – and downright ravishing for the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which is some of the most tenderly sublime music ever written; music that has averted suicide and helped recovery from depression. Elsewhere, the dancing often felt purely decorative and occasionally like a distraction from the film images, Gluck’s music and the committed acting and singing, which were more successful in attaining the bella simplicita that Gluck was aiming for.
Ben Cullen-Williams’ video images were hauntingly effective, with a vast grey seascape, continuous strobe lighting for the gates of hell and finally a starlit sky with diaphanous clouds. Louise Gray’s costumes, fabulous though they would have been on a catwalk or in a piece of pure dance, seemed frivolous and attention seeking against the high seriousness of Gluck’s music. Eurydice’s funeral seemed more like a rained off beach party for Lycra fetishists. The furies at the gates of the underworld were singularly unmenacing in Day-Glo stripy socks and almost football kit, although there was something marvellous about the way they glowed in the dark. And the Elysian Fields appeared to be hosting a prohibitively expensive Goop workshop in designer yoga wear.
The ending – with Eurydice suspended behind a yellow transparent screen – was more or less where we started, and did leave me with food for thought. Was McGregor hinting at the fragility and transience of relationships – and how they cannot outlast death and lack of communication? Was this the point of the Gods’ prohibition, to show us how, even if eloquence and intensity of grief can bring back a lover from the dead, the cracks inevitable in any relationship would still eventually destroy it anyway? This is in direct contradiction to the final celebratory praise of Love – sung with delightful purity and sweetness by Soraya Mafi. This would not be the first opera with an ambivalent finale. Perhaps McGregor’s production was more subtle than it first appeared.