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The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera review - amorphous excess | reviews, news & interviews

The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera review - amorphous excess

The Mask of Orpheus, English National Opera review - amorphous excess

Daniel Kramer's camp carnival defuses any focus in Birtwistle's bruising score

Peter Hoare and Alfa Marks surrounded by multiple EurydicesAll images by Alastair Muir

Advance publicity overstated the case for The Mask of Orpheus. "Iconic"? Only to academics and acolytes, for British audiences haven't had a chance to see a production since ENO's world premiere run in 1986. "Masterpiece"?

Sitting there after the second interval 33 years ago, surrounded by empty seats long vacated (by fellow critics, shame on them, among others), and facing a third act with a sense of fatigue, I hardly thought so then. And though I can hear the virtues more clearly now, the dead directorial hand of Daniel Kramer has turned an already complex, sometimes obscure layering of multiple myths and ritual repetition into amoebic dysentery.

Respect, though, for Birtwistle's long and punishing score as well as its valiant performers. Certainly its persistence is important for the history of opera, if not (arguably) for opera. Slice into any part of the overripe fruit and the multicoloured mottling is impressive. Striking clarinet parts, rising to screams, bending lines and growling, turbulent brass have become a Birtwistle hallmark - too repetitiously so, some might argue. Yet while you have to admire a composer so persistent in his non-linear arguments, The Mask of Orpheus came, in 1986, as a gelatinous disappointment after the specific music Birtwistle had written for Peter Hall's groundbreaking, multimasked National Theatre production of The Oresteia.

Peter Hoare and Claron McFadden in The Mask of OrpheusBoth approaches to Greek myth seemed to celebrate it for its apartness, its primitive roots, rather than what it has to tell us today. Which is fine when spoken word dictates the pace. Here, as in Gawain, vocal lines mostly seem plastered at random over a thick instrumental paste which seems to have no interest in telling a clear story. Add to that the electronic interludes of the outer acts and the one towards the end of the seminal second, evolved by Birtwistle and Barry Anderson at Paris's Institute for Research and Co-Ordination of Acoustics and Music (IRCAM), and the interchange and interplay of orchestra and recording hold just about enough interest over three long hours.

Add Kramer to the mix, though, and the multiple stories with their action replays, which need absolute rigour, get smothered in what's supposed to be a savage parade but looks, thanks to costume designer Daniel Lismore's glittering excess, more like a Swarovski-themed runway pageant in RuPaul's Drag Race (which is not to denigrate Lismore; Ru's American queens can be magisterial in their invention). Orpheus 1 is an old rock star - that idea seems to get lost later on - clambering out of a bath like a raddled Eddie Izzard to turn into Danny La Rue (pictured above with Claron McFadden), though every praise to Peter Hoare for stamping his vivid vocal identity upon a taxingf role created by the late, great Philip Langridge. The supporting men are just clowns: Kramer seems to be replaying the Birwistle opera with which he had some success, Punch and Judy.

Claire Barnett-Jones in The Mask of OrpheusIt eventually transpires that Kramer is going for a Day of the Dead pageant, cued perhaps by Damien Hirst's glitter-encrusted skull. What do we get to understand? That the relationship of three Orpheuses and three Eurydices (Claire Barnett-Jones pictured right) - here sometimes more - has been an abusive one, that the woman gets finally to enact her vengeance on the man. Kramer respects the repetitions, giving us something to hold on to. Don't ask where the babies, bits of which get put through a blender in Act Two, come into it. There are flashes of recognition in the other tales being told as a glass box glides across the stage - that must be Venus Anadyomene with her shell-covered pudenda, that Adonis with a boar tusk, though the rest are anyone's guess - and the choreography, by Barnaby Booth, works well with the difficulty of Birtwistle's subterranean rhythmic drive.

But the big botch is the crucial second act, where Orpheus faces the 17 arches of Hades and is supposed to lose Eurydice again and again. Peter Zinovieff's text is loose, but not lazy. Kramer takes the sound and fury to signify whatever you want them to, and while the outlines of a real face sometimes emerge in the score - the smokiness of a rare saxophone solo in amongst the wind, brass and percussion, the ghost of a real dance, the desolate calm after the storm - they're not to be found onstage.Marta Fontanais-Simmons in The Mask of OrpheusYou realise here why the flat, non-directional vocal amplification is necessary, but it simply adds to the assault. Nevertheless Hoare, the vocal Eurydices - Marta Fontanals-Simmons (pictured above) and very promising Claire Barnett-Jones - and the mythic Andrews Sisters (Charlotte Shaw, Katie Coventry and Katie Stevenson) transcend the coarse miking. Claron McFadden does what she can with a ludicrous coloratura shriek-fest, fortunately boundaried as Ariel in Adès's The Tempest was not. The aerialists and dancers are beguiling to watch, while Martyn Brabbins and James Henshaw serve the valiant conducting honours. It's an impressive feat to have pulled off, but to what ends I'm still not sure. Kramer is now about to leave the building, his place to be taken by Annilese Miskimmon, who has a good track record in administration but barely more success on the production front. ENO stumbles on, but its performers keep yielding gold regardless; they always have and they always will.


Right there on Page 4. Pay attention, Mr Nice! I can't say that I care for the production any more than you do. But it is interesting that this review neglects to mention that, while the audience may have left in droves 33 years ago, they stayed to cheer this time round - thuderously so and with a heartfelt standing ovation for the composer and librettist at the end. But then, such a conspicuous triumph doesn't fit the narrative of terminal decline at ENO. Instead, you waste space by taking an irrelevant pop at the incoming Artistic Director, before she has even set foot in the Coliseum.

Fair enough, sir, I did say I might not have been looking in the right place, and it's a surprise to find this specific band listed in the orchestra for the 2019-20 season in the 'endpapers'. As for the ovation, it would be churlish not to join the standing ovation exclusively for the 85-year-old composer. And the current ENO habit is to paper the first night house with company friends and sponsors as well as critics, who are of course now down to a single ticket each. I'm not in the line of running down ENO - it actually hit a high watermark under the year and a bit of Mark Wigglesworth's inspired leadership, and despite management misfires since has produced some wonderful shows. But Kramer's have not been among them, and nothing I've seen by Miskimmon has showed directorial inspiration. Not that it's entirely necessary for an artistic director to excel in that sphere, and Kramer has made some good choices in the much-truncated seasons; on paper, the Orpheus idea was a good one, but it seems that none of the shows under that aegis have hit the mark so far. .

Sadly this comment is factually incorrect - up in the balcony there were swathes of newly abandoned seats at the start of the second and third acts. And even more sadly, it wasn't hard to see why in the face of such a crass, facile and self-indulgent production. What a lost opportunity after 33 years - back in 1986 I was just discovering opera, and the overwhelming experience of The Mask of Orpheus (in David Freeman's stunning production) was one of the things that turned me onto a fan. Kramer's ineptitude may well have the opposite effect.

Many thanks for a view from where the real opera-goers and first-timers were. Way too much glitzy toadying going on in the stalls, about ass genuine as a Swarovski diamond and jarringly at odds with the hardcore score not entirely smothered by all the onstage bling..

Please just let Leigh Bowery rest in peace. He did it best (and it's questionable that it needed to be done in the first place anyway) without resorting to the supposed glamour (but actual naffness) of bloody Swarovski crystals! More has never looked like less.

I came to the evening in the knowledge I was going to be hearing an orchestra with no strings and seven percussion sections. This did not, for me, hinder the music's beauty. Drone like sections with complex layers kept the ears alert and delighted. In the second and third acts this extended to sections of great emotional weight and overall I was mesmerised. The final quiet sequence - absolutely exquisite. I was frustrated at times that the leads were not able to unleash a full melodic burst as the singing was so lovely but no doubt that is the point. It does in that respect feel a bit like a long recitative. The staging was extraordinary, not least because there were often several points of focus, so there was a sense one might be missing something on another part of the stage - dancers hanging from straps 15ft up in the air, scampering beasts darting about the place and characters disappearing mysteriously into baths or holes that appeared in a bed. The costumes were a visual feast - Royal Dada from the Andromeda galaxy. I had a brilliant night and one that remained with me all the next day - a yardstick of a great work of art. Highly recommended.

Persistent disconnect between music and staging in Act 2 ( perhaps the greatest music Birtwistle has ever written). However, elsewhere there were striking moments of agreement . The final 15mins were sheer magic for instance. I can imagine this team delivering a very good Stockhausen or Ligeti opera.

I was at the final performance last night and it received a rapturous standing ovation at the end and a long curtain call. There were certainly some walk-outs after the first interval but not many. I think it scores as a definite success overall, there were faults with the production certainly but I so pleased to have seen and heard it.

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