by Rachel Beaumont

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Orpheus surprise: Orpheus and Eurydice at ENO

Orpheus and Eurydice
English National Opera
London Coliseum
Balcony B29, £10
1 October 2019
ENO page

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is a smart choice for a choreographer directing opera. It’s short, it’s filled with ballets, there are only three cast members, the music is relatively simple and the story is straightforward and famous. Wayne McGregor’s effort is nevertheless mixed, on balance in an interesting way, composed of surprising successes and surprising failures.

One failure is not so surprising given who McGregor is, and McGregor would no doubt virulently refute my verdict on this particular aspect. True to his wont, he has populated the creative team with artists from diverse walks. As has happened more often than not, he seems to have made little effort to unify these artists around a central vision (also known as ‘directing’). As a consequence Orpheus is a batty hotchpotch, mysterious ideas running wild in one medium with no corollary in any other. What is the framing device? What relation has the video to the costumes? Why the naked Orpheus? Questions all that have no answer.

It cheesed me right off, but it made the treasure of McGregor’s great success all the more prized and surprising. It might be the bit of the opera everyone knows but ‘Che farò’ is a great aria, even more than usual when in the hands of Alice Coote. Though complaining of a cold on this opening night, she was sensational here, singing with her characteristic blazing intensity bent to an unbearably tragic renunciation of the world. McGregor has the sensitivity to know that Coote’s voice is this scene’s greatest strength – the lights dim but for a spotlight on Coote alone, and the rest of the stage is bare. He might have meddled, but he did not, and in this focussed concentration Coote’s phenomenal performance shines as it should.

The failure that surprised me was in McGregor’s treatment of the Dance of the Furies. Mesmerising stage images, in collaboration with his creative partners, are very much in his area of expertise (as Autobiography and Woolf Works among countless others show). Here he achieves that when taking everything away for ‘Che farò’, but something goes seriously awry earlier on. As Furies the dancers are decked out in Greco-Harry Potter-Keith Haring peculiarities, which glow in the dark. Seeing the usual McGregor dislocations at manic pace in these costumes with this music, silly enough anyway, was enough to give me the giggles. Add in that unexplained naked Orpheus and the whole thing looked a mess – maybe it could charitably be termed a hellish torment of aesthetics.

Let us speak of non-McGregor things. Coote was a little rocky in the first half, perhaps with that cold, but she warmed into the second half to sing as well as I’ve ever heard her, which is very well indeed. The sopranos Sarah Tynan as Eurydice and Soraya Mafi as Love were perfectly pleasant, though in no way on the same level. Perhaps they can never be in this opera. In other musical respects this was a shambles. The chorus was messy and out of tune, the orchestra, conducted by Harry Bicket, sounded like they were sightreading. Perhaps a necessary sacrifice given Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus is rushing fast on the heels.

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