Ravishing and poignant: ENO’s Orphée reviewed

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

Billy Wilder, asked for his opinion of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of his movie Sunset Boulevard, famously replied: ‘Those boys hit on a great idea. They didn’t change a thing.’ I don’t think you could say exactly that about Netia Jones’s new staging of Philip Glass’s Orphée, a piece that takes the script of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film and turns it into — well, into an opera by Philip Glass. Cocteau’s shimmering cinematic imagery (think Man Ray come to life) defies physical realisation, so Jones and her designers Lizzie Clachan (sets) and Lucy Carter (lighting) have found poetic, often blindingly beautiful theatrical equivalents. But that apart, Jones takes Wilder’s advice and goes, by and large, with Cocteau and Glass’s haunting, strangely compulsive flow.

As the final instalment of English National Opera’s wildly erratic Orpheus season, that was never a given, and there were a few early wobbles. The programme listed a platoon of unscripted additional characters including ‘Nadia Boulanger’, ‘Einstein on the Beach’ and — here the sinking feeling really set in — ‘Philip Glass’. And then Glass’s music began its familiar chug, the stage filled (the crowd of café-dwellers might have included Glass and Boulanger; from the dress circle it was impossible to tell), and — yes, this came as a surprise — all those cherished prejudices began to ebb.

The first scene was the weakest, with Glass’s music at its most twee and the café crowd, dressed like Marcel Marceau, mugging and miming away in the style that a better critic once characterised as ‘first day at Rada’. Jennifer France’s Princess prowls about in black couture, there’s a roar of motorbikes and suddenly we’re down the rabbit hole, spiralling into the dreamworld where Cocteau and Glass, as well as Jones and her team, all seem to feel most fully at home.

It looks magical. The play of light and darkness; the frames and screens that shift slowly around the stage, inviting you to question each perspective; the interwoven screengrabs from Cocteau’s film and the use of live video to evoke the transition between worlds. It’s almost hypnotic, and even though the rate of visual invention eases off in Act Two (which effectively recreates Cocteau’s ruinous otherworldly ‘Zone’ in theatrical terms) it’s still almost too much to absorb. The performances bring it into focus: a significant achievement in itself, since Cocteau offers little evidence for the genius of his left-bank poet Orphée, who comes across as a shit in a cashmere sweater. His put-upon wife Eurydice is compelling only in her pathos.

Still, Glass finds a musical language for each of them, and the cast made it speak. Nicholas Lester’s voice gave a leathery, casually worn sense of masculine assurance (not to say entitlement) to Orphée, and Sarah Tynan, in her floral frock, wrung a desperate sweetness from Eurydice’s hopeful scraps of melody. In Cocteau’s mirror-world, though, the supernatural characters are the most truly human. Nicky Spence, as the Charon-like chauffeur Heurtebise, sounded almost as if the emotional strain was going to burst the limits of his voice; an intensely touching embodiment of a stock character transfixed by a compassion he was never meant to feel.

Who knew that Glass could generate this level of emotional engagement? (He’s never done it for me on disc.) That’s a tribute to the conducting of Geoffrey Paterson, whose instinct for pace lets the score pulse and glow even as, imperceptibly, the tide of melancholy rises from a murmur to an engulfing roar. But above all it’s down to Jennifer France as the Princess: sensuous and regal in her movements, elegant in her gestures and in absolute, thrilling command of a voice that expanded, through the drama, from diamond-cut poise to tremulous, neon-lit passion.

And yet there’s no sense of France upstaging anyone. She’s the dark star around which this whole wondrous spectacle orbits: ravishing, poignant and leaving an oddly uplifting sense that some mysteries are beyond the reach even of art. When in Act One the Princess glided around the sleeping Orphée to a yearning flute melody, a vast image of her unblinking, stricken face flickering behind her, I found myself willing it to continue — and actually resenting the approaching interval. I think the word for that is a triumph.

I’m not sure what the word is for the performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that Michael Tilson Thomas conducted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra. Virtuosic? Sure. Colourful? Definitely, with rasping Soviet-style trumpets, and woodwinds like Fabergé enamel. Profound? No chance. There’s a tragedy of Stalingrad proportions beneath Prokofiev’s chromium-plated climaxes, but if you conduct it like a firework gala, it’s just going to sound like the Osipov State Balalaika Orchestra. Possibly I wasn’t in the mood, because the audience whooped, the orchestra beamed and Tilson Thomas looked very happy to be back. I’ll get my coat.

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