Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice

Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice
English National Opera, Harry Bicket
The Coliseum, 31 October 2019

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice was the third of the current English National Opera (ENO) series of four operas based on the Orpheus myth that I saw, although it was the first to be performed in the series. It was also the earliest of the series, the most telling omission being Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo. In a nod to the Berlioz anniversary year, Orpheus and Eurydice was performed from the 1859 edition by Berlioz rather than Gluck’s own 1762 Vienna score or his 1774 Paris revision.

The principal change in Berlioz’s generally conservative and sensitive version is that the role of Orpheus is taken by a female contralto, rather than a male countertenor (a contralto castrati in Gluck’s 18th-century performances), the latter becoming increasingly difficult to sing as French pitch rose over the years. French contralto Pauline Viardot was the soloist in Berlioz’s 1859 version, and sang for at least 150 further performances. As Anna Picard points out in the programme book essay, Viardot had become some something of a muse to Berlioz. 

The director was Wayne McGregor, whose company of dancers dominate the proceedings, to the detriment and confusion of the plot. There were several times when the antics of the dancers seemed at odds with the music, notably at the end of the 2nd Act when the music softens and slows to a gentle cadence while the dancers continued their frenetic leaps and bounds as the curtain dropped.

In the latter part, Orpheus and Eurydice gained a dance double, Eurydice a more-or-less naked young man in skin-colour undies. I am not quite sure what they represented, but I could see no apparent link with the plot. I suppose if you employ the head of any arts company to direct an opera, they are going to make sure their own people get key billing, but I do question whether this always produces the best opera productions.

Sarah Tynan as Eurydice, with dancer

The dancers were the only real interference with the opera, unlike the other two operas that I have so far seen, one of which was just silly, the other overblown to excess. You can click through to read my reviews of Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld and Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus.

McGregor puts the chorus into the pit, removing them from their usual important stage roles as Shades & Furies and mourners, which were handed to the athletic leaps and bounds of the McGregor dance troupe. Lizzie Clachan is the designer for all four Orpheus operas, and this was the best so far, not least in their commendable simplicity. The impressive lighting was by Jon Clark. Backdrop videos of varying degrees of complexity were provided by Ben Cullen-Williams. Christopher Cowell’s translations were very much better than the ENO’s often rather trite offerings.

Soraya Mafi & Alice Coote

As with the other two operas in the series, the strongest element in this performance by far was the music, from the pit, the ENO chorus and the excellent soloists. Alice Coote was Orpheus and Sarah Tynan Eurydice, with Soraya Mafi as Love, all three extremely impressive. Harry Bicket’s conducting was equally impressive and sensitive. Philip Glass’s Orphée is to come.

Alice Coote & Sarah Tynan as Orpheus & Eurydice
Production photos: ENO