The Mask of Orpheus was last fully staged before this reviewer was born. It has returned to the London Coliseum, where it was premiered, after over thirty years, in a new production by outgoing ENO artistic director . Its musical forces – mainly guttural brass and rasping winds – are led by longtime Birtwistle collaborator and advocate Martyn Brabbins; the score is so complex it demands another conductor in the form of James Henshaw.
The Mask of Orpheus is cast in three acts, though that is where convention ends. Librettist Peter Zinovieff explodes the narrative order of the Orpheus myth, rerunning and unpicking episodes concurrently in mimed and danced sequences, making use of the aerial work of Alfa Marks and Leo Hedman, manifestations of Orpheus ‘the Myth’. Their weightless acrobatics channel the work’s dreamy quality, making its episodes appear lucid yet also enigmatically abstract. Act I sketches, in recursive fashion, the coordinates of the story: Eurydice’s marriage, her rape by Aristaeus (sung with oily menace by baritone James Cleverton), her death and descent into the underworld, Orpheus’ resolution to pursue her. It concludes with a haunting lament from Peter Hoare’s Orpheus the Man, who sang his marathon part forcefully and without fatigue.
He was particularly thrilling narrating the seventeen ‘arches’ of Act II, charting his journey into the underworld. This sequence contains some of the most vertiginous music of Birtwistle’s output: anarchic, impulsive, and so raw it felt as if it were being composed in that very moment. The ENO orchestra, shorn of strings to make way for acres of percussion, crackled and keened with an intuitive grasp of the score. Live elements are complemented by electronics, devised by Barry Anderson at IRCAM, splintering and reprocessing the sounds of a harp. These sounds are metallic and rasping; when combined with orchestra in full flight they are truly awesome and terrifying. The final act is nine episodes ‘of death and transformation’, catching Orpheus the Man again in the traps of his memory, from which emerges a new language of artistic creation, contrived by Zinovieff to suggest artistic and personal rebirth.
On top of all this we have Kramer’s concept, which presents Oprheus as a kind of louche, aged rockstar, with a glittering harp on his Presley-esque jacket, dwelling in an LA villa; the Furies of act three were nurses with a nod to Kim Kardashian. Kramer’s take is a thoughtful one, allegorising Orpheus with the aura of modern celebrity. He and his ciphers wore red, whereas Eurydice and hers are clad in blue, in a clarifying design decision. Designs by Daniel Lismore were literally dazzling, stitching 400,000 Swarovski crystals into deliriously imaginative costumes, enchanting and blinding like the music itself.
This was a well-drilled cast who also reminded us in the ensemble sequences of how beautiful Birtwistle’s music can be, with its exquisite part-writing for groups of voices, alternately as women, priests, and judges. Eurydice the Woman was sung with seductive melancholy by Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Claron McFadden delivered breathtaking coloratura as the Oracle of the Dead.
It’s a risky proposition for a company under so much scrutiny to stage something of this difficulty and scale. It’s a music drama with extraordinary density, and Kramer’s approach sometimes results in a stage picture that is too busy, causing our focus to slip from Birtwistle’s glittering, acidic music. The directorial impulse to make a definitive statement with a work so rarely performed is understandable. Sometimes this means work’s atavistic energies slightly occluded by action onstage that tries to clarify the narrative origami. But this clutter may not be entirely a problem. Rather this complexity is an invitation into to repeated viewing and listening to a mysterious spectacle which pushes unusual emotional buttons.