Phillip Glass’ opera of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 masterpiece Orphée is the final piece in the puzzle of ENO’s four-piece semi-season devoted to the myth of Orpheus. ENO has delivered acclaimed and inventive stagings of Glass’ Akhnaten and Satyagraha these last two seasons. In both productions the spectacle of design and choreography reflected the mesmeric intensity and sweep of each work’s score. This new production is a slightly different story, principally because Netia Jones’ direction and design overshadows Glass’ less developed musical contribution. It is a work that reproduces Cocteau’s film scene-for-scene and line-for-line (Glass’ libretto is simply the dialogue from the film, translated into English by Jones and Emma Jenkins) and as a consequence it is Cocteau’s disturbing psychological acuity and uncanny symbolism that really shine through, though their glow is dark and unnerving.
This intends no disrespect towards conductor Geoffrey Paterson or the musicians in the pit. Notwithstanding a muddy, occluded opening, they despatched Glass’ bright and surprisingly malleable music with brio. There were moments where the chamber-like jazz café dimensions and timbres of the forces were swallowed up by the Coliseum’s cavernous acoustic, but the score’s more inventive musical conceits shone nonetheless, where Glass’ usual fare blends with neoclassical inflections redolent of Michael Nyman.
‘Mirrors’, Cocteau noted, ‘are the doors by which death comes and goes’, and by extension artworks too. Orphée’s journey here explores this interconnection of art and death. Orphée is embroiled in the accident that kills young poet Cégeste, falling in love with the mysterious Princess, who turns out to be a personification of death that sprawls across the world of the living and the dead, whose agent is her chauffeur Heurtebise. The latter will fall in love with Eurydice, whom Orphée must follow into the underworld and retrieve, which he does after a bureaucratic tribunal that makes over myth into modernity.
Jones’ previous work suggests a fascination for metaphorical journeys of existential self-examination, having produced Hans Zender’s reimagining of Schubert’s Winterreise and Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. Her production is visually startling and highly reflective. Live and mechanical modes of production clash and overlap, heightening the deeply uncanny dimensions of the work, even in the opening dumbshow: a recording of Cocteau onscreen is doubled by mime behind him; stage right shows literal shadow-boxing. Later the Princess and Orphée enter a recording studio to dub their lines onto Cocteau’s film, much of which is reproduced in projections; live video has us see through the mirror to Orphée’s desk, a glass through which he will later pass to enter hell.
The production’s simple, mobile shapes stop us getting bogged down in a seminar. If anything the second half could have extended this train of thought quite profitably. But the effect is to remind us that artworks are always caught in some kind of self-reflection. Dramatic rhythm comes from Lucy Carter’s lighting, playing off the monochromatic designs to produce moments of dazzling visual intensity, not least at the climax of act one, and Lizzie Clachan’s sets imbue the picture with spare potency.
The cast is well stocked with ENO regulars. Nicholas Lester cut an imposing yet skittish figure as the title character. Tall, gaunt, and in steely voice, his performance captured the character’s otherworldly disdain for those around him, as well as Cocteau’s psychological acuity, descending deeper into his obsession in trying to comprehend the enigmatic radio transmissions from the world beyond. Sarah Tynan’s fretful Eurydice pulled out the work’s comedy in the latter scenes, where they must avoid each other’s gaze, to absurd effect. Nicky Spence’s Heurtebise sang with ardent urgency, and the growing darkness in his voice made for beguiling duets with Lester’s baritone. Anthony Gregory’s Cégeste was aloof and ethereal, hovering between worlds of living and dead. Jennifer France, making her ENO debut as the Princess, cut an icy path through the show with sharp costume and clean, precise sound.