Philip Glass - Orphée
English National Opera, 2019
Geoffrey Paterson, Netia Jones, Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, Jennifer France, Nicky Spence, Anthony Gregory, Clive Bayley, Simon Shibambu, Rachael Lloyd, William Morgan
The Coliseum, London - 18 November 2019
The Orpheus myth has been an inspiration to artists and musicians for centuries and, as the recent English National Opera series that includes Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice and Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus - but going right back to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo - it has often provoked some of the most fascinating and enduring works in the history of opera. Whether you consider Philip Glass's Orphée, based on Jean Cocteau's movie at the same name, is worthy of being considered on the same level, there's no doubt that it's an equally fascinating approach to the same subject, haunting, unconventional and admonitory in its outlook
More than just be inspired by Cocteau's film, having worked on a series of three works based on Cocteau's extraordinary films (Orphée, La Belle et la Bête, Les Enfants Terribles), Glass is clearly attracted to Cocteau's sensibility, having studies in Paris in the 1950s with Nadia Boulanger, immersed in the same bohemian artistic milieu of the Paris left bank that inspired Cocteau. Director Netia Jones alludes to that in the opening scene of the ENO's production where the young poet Cégeste is killed in a road accident, having Glass, Boulanger and early formative dream-like companions from Einstein on the Beach sitting in the cafe where the young man has just caused a disturbance and a fight.
There's a good reason why Glass, Cocteau and many other artists and poets are attracted to the myth of Orpheus as, among other themes, it touches on some fundamental questions about the role of the artist. Glass uses the original text from Cocteau's 1950 film Orphée as libretto, and although Cocteau's contemporary updating of the story departs considerably from the original Orpheus myth - as does The Mask Of Orpheus - in essence the themes are the same, probing the idea of obsession, with questions of mortality and immortality through one's works, with the need to transgress boundaries in order to ask difficult questions and find the inspiration that leads one to be creative.
Glass's music and the visual representation of it on the Coliseum stage captures this alternate view of reality superbly. Glass's usual swirls and arpeggios combine with the projections and overlays of sequences from the Cocteau film, matching the fluid dream-like mood of the subsequent events as Orpheus is led by the Princess into the world through the mirror, a world where the dead can live again. Orpheus struggles to reconciles this vision of another reality with the practicalities and realities of everyday life as a poet and as a husband. His relationship with the Princess however allows him to co-exist in the world of the living and the dead as a poet, without really being conscious of where his gift and muse lies.
Orphée (1991) comes at an interesting stage in Glass's musical development. It's less radical perhaps than his early Portrait Trilogy operas (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten), but still quite experimental and within the familiar Glass idiom of minimalist music of repetition and changing parts. As well as looking to the influence of Cocteau, Glass would also attempt to tap into the similar creative experimentation from other artists like David Bowie (Low Symphony, 1992) and Allen Ginsberg (Hydrogen Jukebox, 1993), with varying levels of success. All of these projects however would push class into exploring different responses and techniques from symphonic arrangements to chamber opera and song cycles, to even scoring La Belle et la Bête (1994) as a live opera over a real-time projection of the Cocteau movie.
The methods employed in Orphée are perfect for the work, using the full text of the film as a libretto, allowing the music and setting of the text to explore and delve further into Cocteau's creation and vision. It doesn't so much seek to deconstruct the work, as this is a work that requires no deconstruction, nor does it act as pure soundtrack accompaniment. The film casts its own spell and you don't want to lose or negate that, and all Glass does is enhance and present it successfully in a new medium where it can be explored creatively and remain fresh. In a way it renders it in three-dimensions, keeping it alive and open to reinterpretation through the medium of performance.
Musically there might not appear to be a great deal of room for interpretation within the familiar rhythms of Philip Glass's music, but as his recent work with Phelim McDermott and Improbable on Satyagraha and Akhnaten has shown (and to an extent on Tao of Glass), it can be expressive and collaborative in its live interaction with a sympathetic stage production. What it does inspire, certainly in the ENO production is an imaginative response from director Netia Jones and set designer Lizzie Clachan to a visual presentation that does succeed in bringing out another dimension to the film, indeed essentially transforming it into 3D through creative set designs. Frames and props move on simple rope-pulled trolleys, reflecting Cocteau's rudimentary but eerily effective techniques, with projections onto blocks of backdrops make the war-torn cityscapes of the Zone indeed three dimensional.
And of course the live performances add a further dimension and character to the work. Conductor Geoffrey Paterson brings out the musical richness that is on offer in Glass's score for chamber orchestra enhanced with vibraphone and electronic keyboard. Set to Cocteau's text, there is inevitably a lot of 'talky' singing (something that is not greatly improved by the ENO's continued pointless policy that translates the original French text into English with no subtitles, which instead of making it 'accessible' actually manages to render it less intelligible), but there are some beautiful passages of vocal writing that bring stand-out performances from Jennifer France as the Princess, Nicky Spence as Heurtebise, Sarah Tynan as Eurydice and Nicholas Lester as Orphée. Once again, the ENO turn out to be great advocates for the operas of Philip Glass.