ORPHÉE | London, Coliseum

English National Opera (ENO) premiere their new production of Philip Glass’ 1991 opera, based on Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film, itself based on Orpheus and Eurydice (or as director Netia Jones herself calls it, an ‘opera of a film of a play of a poem of an opera’). Jones also provides the video and costume design: these really assist to transport the audience into the existential hinterland of Glass’s opera, somewhere between life and death. Awash with live action, projection, film fragments, and as a raft of avant-garde images and metatheatrical flourishes, this is an intellectually ambitious, if emotionally dislocated production.

A large part of the emotional dislocation comes from humorous distractions. An onanistic graffiti artist pulls focus, as does an unfortunate denizen of the underworld who walks around impaled by an absurdly large spike, as does the recurrent character with a horse’s head. To start the show, the stage is deconstructed by giant projections of a graph, and then a real boxer shadow-boxes a shadow-boxing shadow, and then a photographer photographs them both. This metatheatrical playing around is undoubtably diverting, but it seems to come at the expense of characterisation or emotional truth.

It is only in the second act, when a more straightforward push and pull love story emerges, that the audience feels permitted to engage emotionally. Between Orpheé (a solid Nicholas Lester), his wife Eurydice (sensitively drawn by Sarah Tynan) and his mysterious lover ‘The Princess’ (a thoroughly engaging Jennifer France), the chemistry is only allowed to crackle towards this denouement.

Geoffrey Patterson conducts a simmering and cinematic interpretation of the music, that adds tension, pace and surreal atmosphere throughout. Similarly choreographed projection from Cocteau’s film, upon which the libretto is based, intercuts with the action and synchronises with the music to awesome atmospheric effect. Unfortunately, all the metatheatre does little to augment Glass’s highly self-referential libretto, which itself feels ponderous and surperficial. Though much of the text is lifted directly from the film, when sung the dialogue seems curiously expository and one-note. There’s a lot here which is undeniably glorious, but we leave wanting a little more straightforward storytelling.

Book online. Tickets available from just £10.

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