Thursday, 24 October 2019

Birtwistle - The Mask of Orpheus (London, 2019)


Harrison Birtwistle - The Mask of Orpheus

English National Opera, 2019

Martyn Brabbins, James Henshaw, Daniel Kramer, Peter Hoare, Marta Fontanais-Simmons, James Cleverton, Claron McFadden, Daniel Norman, Claire Barnett-Jones, Simon Bailey, Matthew Smith, Alfa Marks, Leo Hedman

The Coliseum, London - 18th October 2019


The Greek myth of Orpheus and his journey to the Underworld to rescue his dead wife Eurydice has been recounted in opera in many different ways, but essentially the story is simple in its telling and in its meaning. It's about love, loss, life, bereavement, endurance, coming to terms with death as a part of life, a theme that can give rise to and be expressed in the highest orders of artistic creativity. Did I say simple? There is of course nothing simple about those themes, neither individually not when combined. It's even more complicated when you add in, as Harrison Birtwistle does in this account of the myth in The Mask of Orpheus, the vagaries of time, the repetition of memory and the unreliability of myth distorting the truth.




Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus is anything but simple, but in comparison to other accounts you have to wonder does it really need to be this complex? This version has three Orpheuses, three Euridices and three Aristeuses, representing the man, the myth, the hero. These splits are further fractured and intertwined through the vagaries of memory, dreams, delusions that result eventually (but by no means clearly) in a coming to terms with reality, or at least with the complexities of reality. The reformist Gluck wouldn't have approved such over-elaboration nor presumably would Monteverdi have countenanced the destruction of the illusion of man aspiring to the gods and coming close to attaining it in the expression of his music.

Musically however, Birtwistle score is just that ambitious and a performance of
The Mask of Orpheus is still a thing of wonder, unlike anything else in opera. At the current ENO production it requires two conductors to manage the vast and unusual arrangement of brass, woodwind and percussion combined with Barry Anderson's IRCAM-derived experimental electronics. It creates an extraordinary sound that fully explores the complexity of situations and moods, the abstraction and repetition, the echo of time and ritual of myth. Peter Zinovieff's libretto is abstract and fragmented, often obscure and unfathomable in vocalised fragments of words. Stockhausen's Licht has nothing on this except length, and even then The Mask of Orpheus is testing at over three and a half hours long.

Inevitably Orpheus's journey in the opera is extremely hard to follow or grasp onto anything concrete. It does however have a very definite form and structure, tri-partite in acts, in its interweaving of three incarnations of the three principal characters. There are three scenes in the first Act and two sets of three allegorical myths interspersed throughout as dance interludes (three 'passing clouds' and three 'allegorical flowers'), but the opera fractures into other directions, Orpheus passing through 17 arches in Act II, Act III divided into eight episodes and an 'Exodos'. The music is just as complex in its composition and form, fractured, episodic, repetitive, interweaving replaying and transforming.




The Mask of Orpheus is evidently an experimental work, an enormous undertaking in an unconventional musical form (with its use of electronics) that Birtwistle hasn't really attempted on this scale anywhere else. Does the experiment yield any great insights into the myth? Should it be possible to grasp some deeper meaning? With the music giving expression, does it even need a narrative? What then should be the role of a director in all this? Should he attempt to make sense of it, to impose a path at least if not a narrative? Paths are important in The Mask of Orpheus and Daniel Kramer's production at least adheres to the unconventional structural path that the opera explores, but it obscures at least distracts when you hope it might illuminate.

Illuminating The Mask of Orpheus is an unenviable challenge admittedly, but Kramer's idea of illuminating doesn't really extend beyond drenching the work in garish day-glo pinks, greens and blues. There's some attempt to encompass the multiple levels of the work up there on the stage, its repetition, its simultaneous echoing of multiple views of past, present, future, myth and reality, but there's also much that is unnecessary. A crass bombardment of colour, projections and quite absurd cabaret or circus-like costumes do little more than fulfil the function of distinguishing one group from another but there's little that appears to connects to the music, to the narrative or themes.




A director like Achim Freyer can get away with that kind of eccentricity in design, but there at least there is an effort towards logic or symbolism even if it can be abstract it the extreme. Here the approach feels completely inappropriate for the subject and the work, over-complicating, making it almost impossible to follow everything that is going on and who is who at any given time. It's not necessarily a case that simplification is required, as it's hard to imagine how you could do that and be true to the structure of the work and music, but the problem seems to be that there appears to be no real feeling for the work or understanding of it in the direction.

The same accusation fortunately can't be levelled at the musical direction. Martyn Brabbins, assisted by James Henshaw, more than met the considerable challenges of this unconventional score and the very high expectations I personally had to hear it performed live. The sound within the Coliseum was incredible, the orchestration opening out the score, creating an enveloping mood that is there within the dynamic of the score and its collision of acoustic and electronic elements. It's been over thirty years since it was performed in full during its original run in 1986 so it's certainly worth taking the opportunity to hear it, and it sounds tremendous in the auditorium of the Coliseum.

While it was hard to follow who was singing what at any stage due to the cut-up and blend nature of the work - not helped at all by the obscure costumes and busy stage - it was clear there were no areas of weakness in the singing either. Peter Hoare as the principal, older Odysseus (The Man) and Claron McFadden as The Oracle of the Dead were identifiable and certainly notable for meeting the singing and performaning challenges of the work. For the musical performance alone this was an extraordinary evening at the opera of a rare and exceptional work, but one unfortunately let down by an ill-considered production design and direction of no discernible artistic merit. 


Links: English National Opera