Harrison Birtwistle’s score for the Mask of Orpheus is a serious intellectual achievement, but unlike his opera The Minotaur there is no thread to follow. Time is folded back on itself as we see incidents such as the relapse of Eurydice into Hades repeated in different forms.
As Birtwistle himself writes, “I’m concerned with repetition, with going over the same event from different angles” — events that “move in concentric circles”, like planets in the solar system, each on its own orbit, taking different times to repeat their cycle. With three versions of Orpheus himself, the Man, the Myth, the Hero, and likewise for Eurydice, this is a multi-dimensional score. There are also three versions of Aristaeus, the mythical creator of wine and honey cultivation, who desired to be Eurydice’s lover. At the end of Act 1 we even see projections of bees working in a hive, but as Birtwistle well knows, myths are multi-layered, divorced from historical fact, and should not be taken literally. Honey, for example was not a Greek invention, but came from their Indo-European forebears.
For the Greeks, the Orpheus myth was a powerful one, and Orpheus himself and the founders of Orphic sects in the fifth century, such as the Pythagoreans, achieved mythical status, credited with seminal achievements. Birtwistle’s composition alludes to other myths such that of Dionysus and Pentheus, and Act 2 of three Acts includes a symbolic journey over seventeen arches, at the end of which the three versions of Orpheus (Man, Hero and Myth) emerge and the Myth hangs himself. This is a highly sophisticated musical creation, but more in the nature of symphony than opera.
A staging should allow the music to speak for itself, with some subtle reminders of what is going on in this multi-layered story, but that was not the case here. When the English National Opera dispensed with Daniel Kramer’s services as artistic director, he decided to take up the staging of this opera, seeing an opportunity for elaborate spectacle with aerial gymnasts and bright costumes that sometimes look as if they were designed for a children’s science fiction spectacular. But high camp is not right for Birtwistle’s music, whose emotional and intellectual depths cannot appeal to an audience for musicals such as The Lion King . Costume designer Daniel Lismore must have had huge fun, and appeared himself in a costume based on one of the characters, but it was all far and away over the top.
Artistic direction of the ENO is now in other hands, and we can only hope that the company will concentrate on its musical and vocal strengths, among which is Martyn Brabbins who, along with James Henshaw, conducted the music, and Peter Hoare whose remarkable performance of Orpheus the Man was the great achievement of the evening.
Continues until 13 November — details here .