Once more, the ENO triumphs with a Philip Glass opera, this one a deft exercise in surrealism. Based on a film by Jean Cocteau, this Orphée rounds off English National Opera’s series of four productions on the Orpheus myth: Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice colourfully choreographed by Wayne McGregor; followed by Emma Rice’s modern take on Offenbach’s light-hearted and irreverent Orpheus in the Underworld; and then a bizarrely high camp staging of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus by the company’s recent, unloved artistic director Daniel Kramer.
What a difference it is to have a production that respects the composer’s intentions, even if the staging with its sideways moving screens and large-scale video projections may not quite evince the magic of Cocteau’s original. But even so, the production hovers between life and death, skirting the no-man’s land between the two, allowing time to reverse and repeat, and playing with mirrors like Alice through the looking glass.
The director, Netia Jones, who also designed the costumes and projections, gave us a staging true to the black and white nature of the movie, with scarcely any colour, except for the floral designs for Eurydice, and the lurid pink for the Princess.
Like the film, Glass’s opera — he adapted his libretto from Cocteau’s original text — is poetry rather than narrative, and Netia Jones has adapted a Cocteau technique of moving the set rather than the camera, so that we occasionally see a strange drift across the stage, allowing the slow passage of time to change our perception of a scene. Yet time itself is static in the mesmerising atmosphere of Glass’s music, and even seems to reverse itself late in Act II. For such mysterious wanderings on the edges of death and immortality, Philip Glass is an ideal composer, and this will surely appeal to the audiences who so loved his Akhnaten and Satyagraha at the London Coliseum in recent years.
Making a very fine ENO debut, the conductor Geoffrey Paterson brought orchestra and singers beautifully together in this elegant shaping of Glass’s music, and Nicky Spence as Heurtebise, the Princess’s chauffeur, was outstanding — a compelling stage presence whose firmly lyrical tenor carried the full weight of the performance. As the Princess herself, the soprano Jennifer France sang with a strong and attractive tone in her ENO debut — a very promising future prospect. The lighter role of Eurydice was prettily sung by Sarah Tynan, while Nicholas Lester’s Orphée showed the plight of the aging poet but lacked gravitas.
Orphée’s predicament, caught between an insipid wife and the deathless yet deathly attractions of the Princess was perfectly captured, and this conclusion of the ENO’s Orpheus quartet, now nearly sold out, makes an irrefutable case for the company’s continued contribution to opera in this country.
Until 29 November — details here.