Philip Glass Orphée

Orphée [based on the film by Jean Cocteau; adaptation by Philip Glass; edited by Robert Brustein]

La Princesse – Ha Young Lee
Cégeste – Christopher Steele
Poet – Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Orphée – Jared Holt
Policeman/La Commissaire – Mark Richardson
Heurtebise – Andrew Kennedy
Eurydice – Katie van Kooten
Agalonice – Liora Grodnikaite
Reporter/Glazier – Nicholas Sales
Judge – Matthew Rose

Actors: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Chereen Buckley, Janine Craig, Lourdes Fabères, Vicky Hong, Philip Keiman, Daniel La Verghetta, Joseph Leigh, Ruth Moss, Barbara Rhodes, Elisabeth Stuart, Tracey May Stuart, John E. Thompson, Rory Dan Wilder

Chamber Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Rory MacDonald

Director – Francisco Negrin
Designs – Es Devlin
Lighting – Bruno PoetMusic preparation – David Gowland & Elizabeth Rowe
French language coaching – Michel Vallat
Surtitles – Jonathan Burton

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 27 May, 2005
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Philip Glass suggests that “Film has become … a magic form of literature and thus a legitimate source of opera”. Fair enough on the face of it: opera has nearly always drawn on existing texts, from Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” onwards. However, the seductive magic of film lies in its illusion of completeness: filmmakers can determine musical and visual resources in the same way as composers, and are additionally able to guide the audience’s attention through their choice of camera shots. The opera composer essentially has to compete with the filmmaker on the latter’s terms, which is a risky game.

Cocteau’s 1949 film “Orphée” is the artist’s singular take on the Orpheus myth. The hero is a poet, successful but despised by the young avant-garde, who ignores his Eurydice in favour of mysterious messages emanating from his car radio; his quest to retrieve her from the underworld is also a search for inspiration in death itself. The film is celebrated for its poetic intensity and visual grace; in Cocteau’s conception, mirrors are the gateways between worlds (a visual effect apparently achieved using a giant vat of mercury). It also has a charming score by Georges Auric.

Francisco Negrin’s production updates the action from the 1950s France of existentialism and Gauloises to a post-modern present day. The Café des Poètes becomes a Hoxton haunt of vampiric scenesters; Orphée, with his serious specs and tousled hair, has the look of a “Newsnight Review” pundit. Es Devlin’s set divides the Linbury space in two, placing the performers in the round, with the band hidden in a cockpit to the side. A mirrored catwalk bisects the space; it is here that we first see Jared Holt’s Orphée, hunched over his notebook in writerly anguish. At either end are the doorways through which the Princess and her henchwomen enter and exit the underworld, despatching their victims with strobing electric-shock effects and much callisthenic ritual.

While the cast, with several singers drawn from the Vilar Young Artists Programme, is uniformly excellent, especially Ha Young Lee’s imperious Princess, the production is misguided and badly paced. Things aren’t too bad in the first act, but with the descent into the underworld comes all kinds of laborious raising and lowering of platforms. The triangular love affairs between Orphée, Eurydice, the Princess and her valet Heurtebise are too hastily established to be convincing, and the whole thing feels effortful, in striking contrast to the quicksilver lightness of Cocteau’s film.

Over it all is Glass’s ponderous score, which crushes spontaneity beneath the deadly weight of its orchestration. Everything proceeds at much the same middling pace; the vocal writing is so uninspired that it might as well not be sung. One can well understand his fascination with Cocteau’s unique vision, but he smothers its humour and life with portentousness masquerading as depth. I left the theatre wishing I’d seen the film instead.

  • Remaining performances: May 30 and June 1, 2, 4 & 5 at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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