English National Opera has enjoyed significant success with two major Glass pieces: Satyagraha and Akhnaten, which, together with Einstein on the Beach, form the constituent parts of the composer’s early and seminal ‘portrait trilogy’ (1975-84).
Orphée (1993) is the first work in another Glass trilogy, based on the films of French multimedia artist Jean Cocteau, and effectively sets the entirety of Cocteau’s film script for his 1950 movie of the same name: director Netia Jones and Emma Jenkins translate the libretto into English for this production, though the words aren’t always clear.
Jones, making her ENO debut, not only directs but designs the costumes and videos as well – the latter a specialism. The design elements are a significant success; her work in the medium is invariably imaginative and effective. Indeed, the look of the show, which takes in footage from Cocteau’s movie and regularly refers to the 1950s and Cocteau himself (mostly in tiny cameos during the opening scene), as well as to Glass and his associates, is stylish and evocative.
The score, though – less epic and more intimate than in the portrait triptych, while less repetitive and in some senses more varied – feels uneven, with dull patches that not even the security of the company’s performance under conductor Geoffrey Paterson can disguise.
The principals enter into the enigmatic, dreamlike atmosphere of a piece in which nothing is quite as it appears to be.
Nicholas Lester’s status-conscious poet Orphée, Jennifer France’s poised Princess, Nicky Spence’s focused Heurtebise, Anthony Gregory’s whippersnapper poetic rival Cégeste and Clive Bayley’s rigid Judge all excel.