English National Opera opens its Orpheus-themed season with the first of four operas on the myth: Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a work that has gone through many editions.
Written for Vienna as an Italian opera with a star countertenor (1762), it was revised as a French opera with a star tenor (1774). Much later, in 1859, Gluck worshipper Hector Berlioz made another Parisian adaptation for the great mezzo Pauline Viardot.
ENO stages Berlioz’s version (with the odd cut) in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. Another great mezzo – Alice Coote – sings Orpheus.
Whichever version is staged, there’s a lot of ballet in the piece, regularly tempting companies to employ choreographers to direct it – sometimes with unfortunate results.
That’s not the case here. Wayne McGregor, while quite naturally making physical movement the expressive focus of many sequences – 14 members of Studio Wayne McGregor take part – presents the narrative with clarity. With such confident vocal actors as Coote, Sarah Tynan (Eurydice) and Soraya Mafi (Love) in the solo roles, movement and music meld.
Visually this is a finely integrated show, with the simple eloquence of Lizzie Clachan’s sets matching Gluck’s classicism, while the vibrant colours of Louise Gray’s costumes, given extra punch by Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben Cullen Williams’ videos, ensure the coherence of the total experience.
Crucial to the production is the strong singing of the ENO chorus and the precise, period-conscious playing of the company’s orchestra under Harry Bicket. Gluck’s vision of the power of music to triumph over death and even hell itself registers impressively.