Premiered at English National Opera back in 1986, The Mask of Orpheus belatedly returns in a staging by Daniel Kramer – the company’s former artistic director who departed in July 2019.
Harrison Birtwistle’s opera is long and musically complex, a discursive exploration of the myth that has fascinated the composer for decades. It circles around elements of the Orpheus story in repetitious, ritualistic form: don’t expect a traditional narrative from Peter Zinovieff’s obscure libretto.
The main characters – Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus – each have three exponents: two of them singers, the third an aerialist. The setting is contemporary, with Peter Hoare (Orpheus – The Man) virtually omnipresent and tireless in a realisation that presents him as a retired rock star.
Dressed in costumes by fashion designer Daniel Lismore – his first for the stage – it’s not easy to work out who many of the other participants are meant to be. The glitzy, camp, frequently enormous frocks – studded, apparently, with 400,000 Swarovski crystals – overwhelm the rest of the show without justifying their place within it.
ENO’s musical resources are well up to the piece’s inordinate demands. Music director Martyn Brabbins and chorus master James Henshaw are the two conductors the score requires. Both chorus and orchestra have mastered the complex idiom. The electronic elements, realised by the composer with Barry Anderson, add further layers of sonic fascination.
Yet if the score and its realisation impress, the production represents yet another ENO staging that lets the piece down from a visual point of view.