Robert Tanitch reviews ENO’s Orphée at London Coliseum
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has inspired so many artists. Which would you prefer to see: a sculpture by Rodin, a painting by Corot, a film by Cocteau, a play by Anouilh, or a ballet by Balanchine to music by Stravinsky?
If you are an operagoer you can see four wildly different operas by Gluck, Offenbach, Harrison Birtwistle and Philip Glass interpreted by four directors from diverse theatrical disciplines at the Coliseum now.
Glass’s Orphée, first performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1993 and at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre in 2005, is based on the 1950 Jean Cocteau film, with Jean Marais, Francois Perier and Maria Casares. It won Top Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1950 and First Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951.
Cocteau, preoccupied with mirrors in the film, memorably declared: “Look at a mirror for a lifetime and you will see death at work.”
The myth is set in Paris during 1945. Death falls in love with Orphée and Heurtebise, Death’s chauffeur, falls in love with Eurydice.
When Orphée is asked who he wants most – Death or Eurydice? – he says he wants both and ends up with his boring wife.
Glass bases his opera on Cocteau’s enigmatic and dream-like screenplay rather than the actual movie.
The opera, conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, directed by Netia Jones and designed by Lizzie Clachan, combines live action and projection, plus fragments of Cocteau’s film.
Nicholas Lester is Orphée, the poet, who is obsessed with creativity and his own immortality. He walks between two worlds, the living and the bombed ruins of the dead.
Sarah Tynan is Eurydice, who tries so hard not to catch her husband’s eye. She absurdly has to keep moving and hiding under tables and behind doors.
Jennifer France is the Princess (a très soignée emissary of Death). Nicky Spence is her personal chauffeur, a former suicide: Her agents are policemen on motorbikes: who run over unsuspecting poets.
I found the production, the moving sets, the stylised Behaviour of the supernumerary actors and the constant projections distracting and somewhat overpowering.
I came out of the Coliseum eager to see Cocteau’s film again.