Mask of Orpheus Review

Last night we went to see the ENO’s new production of the The Mask Of Orpheus. It was originally staged in 1986, and has not been fully restaged since, although it has been fairly well mythologised by the contemporary music community ever since as far as I can tell. It definitely won great critical acclaim the first time round, this time however, it’s a bit more complicated. A cursory google will turn up a lot of two and three star reviews, and a lot of criticism of the staging, which fairly roundly receives the blame for something of a missed opportunity, in the eyes of most of the critics at least. Even the one largely positive review, from the Spectator, is full of caveats and words like ‘unintelligible’. 

The opera is in three acts. It doesn’t follow a chronological timeline and the three main characters all appear in three iterations; the person/the myth/the hero, realised by a singer/mime (dancer)/puppet (although this was performed by a real singer in the new production). Birtwistle and the librettist, Zinovieff, take us through multiple versions of the same events, as they are predicted/experienced/remembered. Electronics by Barry Anderson are present throughout the opera, as a background at times and then sometimes as interludes with no orchestral accompaniment at all. One of the main criticisms that I heard last night and read in the reviews was that the plot or story was impenetrable to the point that the audience was baffled beyond an enjoyable point. I have to say that this wasn’t my experience, but I did require a revision session and a fairly animated discussion about the synopsis of each act before watching. I usually find that I enjoy opera more when I know what’s going to happen, and as Birtwistle says ‘when you tell a myth, it has to be a known myth’. Well, although we all know Orpheus quite well, I would say that I really had never considered all the contradictions present in the myth. In fact, I’m left with quite a long list of questions, on which I’d appreciate the input of a friendly classist. 

Act 1 was quite fragmented both musically and temporarily. We had to work hard to make sense of the plot and also the music. It also took some time to tune into the ‘dialect’ of the piece. Although the opening was extremely effective and arresting both visually and aurally, we saw Orpheus emerging from the bath and dressing himself whilst trying to piece his speech back together, stuttering and tripping over hard edged syllables as his movements also jerked and spasmed uncomfortably. I think that because we had to work so hard to understand everything that we were seeing and hearing, it made it drag somewhat. This is common in opera, and not necessarily a problem, depending on your viewpoint. 

Act 2 was a bit like being repeatedly struck about the head with the massive orchestra. The sounds the orchestra produced were extremely emotionally provocative. The sheer virtuosity was astonishing, the piccolo and percussion players ought to have a special mention for incredible control and power. It was all very dramatic and seemed much faster paced, but I think this was maybe an illusion created by the much more linear and easily comprehensible plot at this point – Orpheus was simply describing his journey through the 17 arches. In short, we didn’t have to work anything like as hard to understand what was going on, the music was very straightforwardly powerful and the action was clear. The upshot was that everyone was much more fulfilled and happy after this act. I don’t know, again, if this is a good thing. 

In both these acts we experienced little interludes, variously named passing clouds and allegorical flowers. These stand alone pieces were excellent; like little sorbets which allowed our brains a little breathing space, so that we could appreciate what happened either side much more. The electronics which accompanied them was exquisitely 80’s sounding and all the better for it. 

Act 3 was also a little more straightforward in the main. Orpheus’s repeated song of magic was completely enchanting. It was hypnotic both in isolation and also when repeated over and over throughout the act. However, this act really embodied my main criticism of the production as a whole; the unbearably over the top staging. I have honestly never seen that many Swarovski crystals in one place, even the final of Strictly Come Dancing. The inexplicable, busty, baby blue pvc clad nurses, the Doctor Who-esque (not my term, stolen from a friend) props and costumes, the almost Teletubby-like appearance of the Second Allegorical Flower… I could go on… it was all a bit much. From the very first few minutes of the opera the staging was intense; it reminded me strongly of a production of Schneewittchen by Holliger that I saw in Basel a few years ago; very camp, very in your face and very, very colourful. And it worked well in Basel, in a story of mother/daughter rivalries, told in a witty fashion. In this production and, crucially, with Birtwistle’s music, for me at least, it didn’t work at all. The music and the story were so emotional and affecting, that I struggled to reconcile the chintzy, sarcastic staging with it; it was an uncomfortable juxtaposition. You could argue that it is important to challenge the earnest, self consciousness of Birtwistle’s music, to be a bit cynical and more aware of the modern world, but for me the timelessness of the myth would be better staged in a sensitive and less self important fashion. And on top of all that, I just couldn’t get away from the thought that it seemed like an awfully large amount of money down the drain. It looked very expensive but it seemed  superficial and fatuous, nothing was gained from the thousands of twinkling crystals, mask-like makeup and massive woollen cocoon. And as an aside, the staging did absolutely nothing to challenge the fact that this opera is very male dominated and would certainly not pass the Bechdel test. On the other hand, some aspects of the staging were original and successful; especially those involving the dancers who levitated on aerial ropes throughout the performance in a display of jaw dropping skill and strength that mirrored the orchestra’s virtuosity pleasingly. Another interesting aspect was the suggestion that Orpheus was maybe to blame for the whole horrible mess himself; the third act contained multiple repetitions and contortions of the rape and death of Euridice and some of these were at the hands of the hero of the piece. This was maybe more down to the libretto, but the staging made it relatively clear what was going on, and it was extremely thought-provoking. 

So to sum up; excellent music, excellently played and sung, excellent libretto, excellent electronics, excellent dancing, too much glitter. All these aspects should work as a team, contributing equally to the end result. Opera is often very excessive and self indulgent and that works in its own idiosyncratic way, but when one single aspect screams ‘ME, ME, ME’ constantly throughout the opera, it casts a shadow on everything else somewhat.

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