The Mask of Orpheus: The ENO Issue

I admit it, I am an operaholic, and with the lockdown halting any form of live music for fear of mass breakout, I have been left longing for the days where concert halls can be full once more. However, this is not an unconditional desire to return to full venues. In my musical isolation I have spent a great deal of time reminiscing about the high points of my spectatorship, and this has placed me in a quandary.

There is one performance that represents both the culmination of my operatic viewership, but also the ‘bottom of the barrel’. This was only the second time this opera was fully staged in history. Although the opera was originally written in 1986, there was only the original ENO production until the new staging in 2019. The original staging received many highly positive reviews and represented the pinnacle of Harrison Birtwhistle’s operatic career. This opera was performed originally by the ENO, and as they were known for in the 1980s, represented all that was daring about modern opera. As I’m sure you can tell, the legacy of this mythic opera inspired an Olympian amount of anticipation. This opera was performed as part of the wider Orpheus cycle at the ENO in 2019 and presented a production that was fraught with all the difficulties you expect from the English National Opera in the 21st century.

The Mask of Orpheus follows the story of the myth of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld to rescue his lost love Eurydice. Unlike the other operas performed in the Orpheus cycle, Birtwistle tells this tale of Orpheus in a multifaceted non-chronological space where several parts of the Orpheus myth are performed simultaneously. The original performance was iconic for its several depictions of Orpheus, with the use of large puppets to recontextualise the space on stage. The costumes in the original performance were used to create a timelessness, where the opera could have taken place in any time or no time at all. This is coupled with the large masks the singers wore throughout the performance, all to move the opera away from realism and toward the mythic avant-gardism Birtwistle was celebrated for at the time.

The opera is written in three acts. In the first act of the opera, Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love and marry before her demise and Orpheus beginning his descent into the underworld. The second act is Orpheus’s descent into the underworld through the seventeen symbolic arches, once he reaches the underworld to recover Eurydice, he journeys back believing that he is being followed by her. After discovering that it was not his love that was following him, but Persephone, he travels back to the underworld once more. The act closes with Orpheus awakening after hanging himself when he realises that Eurydice cannot follow him out of the underworld. The final act of the opera is where the achronological nature of this work becomes pertinent. The act begins with time flowing backwards, with Orpheus traveling back out of the underworld and Eurydice dying again. The time then flows forwards and backwards with Orpheus travelling in and out of the underworld. The opera finishes with the Orpheus myth dissolving under the disparities between different accounts of the myth.

Musically, the anticipation around The Mask of Orpheus is high. The notability of the score by Birtwistle and the immense amount of electronic music that permeates the score is a wonder of the musical world. The score at points becoming so complex that the work can only be performed by an orchestra with two conductors. The score not only breaks boundaries with the use of electronic music, but also the lack of any string instruments in the orchestra creates an interesting timbral feast for the listener. The lack of the unified sound so often provided by the string section moves the listener away from the shores of certainty and leaves them in the middle of a whirling ocean.

I feel at this point I must point out that the wonders of the Birtwistle opera mentioned above are purely to set the bar of expectations for you, where mine were before I saw the 2019 staging of this opera. And now that your expectations are suitably high, I feel I must now turn my attention to the matter at hand, the 2019 English National Opera staging of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus.

For this epic performance we were lucky enough to secure tickets to the press showing/final dress rehearsal. The evening began with promise, after enjoying a horrendously overpriced bottle of sparkling water at the Coliseum bar, we made our way into the hall to take our seats for the opera. As the lights dimmed, the atmosphere in the room was electric. We were at the avantgarde of opera spectatorship this evening, we were the first audience to watch The (fully staged) Mask of Orpheus in thirty-four years and only the first audience in history to see this, new and daring performance. The anticipation in the room was palpable and as the curtain started to raise, the lights were once again brightened to reveal Harrison Birtwistle leaning into the pit over the rail to thank the musicians and give us, the audience, a brief warm-up talk before the opera. After Sir Birtwistle has once again taken his seat the lights were dimmed ready for an epic feat of opera.

The music began and was everything I had anticipated; the orchestra was phenomenal and the mastery of this highly complex score was astonishing. The vocal ability of the singers on stage was similarly stupefying. However, the musical achievement of this opera was not enough to keep this proverbial train on the tracks.

Although everything about this opera pointed to euphoria, in reality, I was severely and bitterly disappointed. The 2019 staging of The Mask of Orpheus was utterly underwhelming.

To begin with the stage, as the curtain lifted, and the wash of magnificent orchestral sound had passed the audience was greeted by the same stale white set the ENO has used for every performance of modern opera since their heyday in the 1980s. The stage was roughly separated into the main stage, and two smaller portions at the back. The front of the stage was an empty space where the performance mainly inhabited, in the back portions sat the ENO bath which has similarly found a place in more operas than Geraldine Farrar and the ENO rope lift on which are two acrobats.

The several depictions of Orpheus were dressed in white, with a shock of white hair. Two of which provided an astonishing vocal performance, the aerialist was the third Orpheus and was the replacement for the puppet that was seen in the original production. The other characters on stage were similarly dressed in a myriad of colours commonly found in the ENO, mainly red and blue.

The convoluted narrative timeline of the opera was the least of confusions during this performance. The plethora of poorly represented external characters added further confusion to the plot of this opera, at several points through the opera the narrative would seem to pause and, across the stage, would come an androgynous performer dressed in a long golden robe (at first) covered in cloth balls inside a large box which travelled across the stage. The first passing of this figure came with the rather peculiar event of dissecting a child’s baby doll and placing its components inside a blender before the audience. The further passing of this figure came with equally confusing episodes of mutilating a child’s toy. The final pass of this figure, they are mutilated by other characters within the opera. Who this character was, is still unclear to me. A further issue with this staging was the depiction of the fates as clowns. The reality that these actors were playing the fates was only made apparent several days after the opera had finished.

It was because of these issues that I feel this modern staging of The Mask of Orpheus was utterly disappointing.

These issues bring me onto a larger issue I feel is not directly related to modern opera but is a key issue for the English National Opera in the 21st century. The issue of relevance.

A question that I consider frequently is whether the ENO is still relevant to a modern audience. Over the last few years the success of the ENO has been steadily decreasing leaving the Coliseum and the ENO in troubled water. Scores of newspaper articles have been written in the last few years stating the ENO has lost its way in the 21st century, but I disagree.

I do not feel the ENO has lost something, instead I feel the ENO has not gained anything. Since the stagings of the 1980s the way the ENO has approached modern opera has changed fairly little, this was highlighted to me in a conversation with a notable composer, where he stated that ‘This opera [Salome] is like any other opera of the ENO in the last few years, white sets and red costumes’. Although he was referring to the 2018 staging of Strauss’s Salome, this notion still applies to this “new staging” of The Mask of Orpheus.

I feel to find their way to success once again, the ENO need to re-establish their connection with the people who come to English operas. A key positive of the ENO is the accessibility of their operas; unlike the ROH, the ENO perform all of their operas in English. Although the upper echelons of opera spectatorship may find an issue with the English libretti, the non-discerning opera enthusiast or general music lover would find the English libretti a positive in breaking into the often-elite world of opera.

The people who would seek to watch an opera in English are often not those who seek to watch an opera like this. This is not to say that the ENO should swear off modern opera entirely, but rather realise that to compete with the opera houses of the world that do appeal to the opera fanatics, they must move into the modern day and say ‘goodbye’ to the same dreary white sets and red costumes. The greatest successes of the ENO from the last few years are the performances such as la Boheme and more appealing operas to those who appreciate entertainment over contemplation. Or simply, operas that appeal to an uninitiated opera goer. I feel that if the ENO wants to succeed, they need to establish their audience once more, and become aware of their needs.

Essentially, my issue with The Mask of Orpheus is that the opera is not modern or daring, but another lukewarm episode of the “ENO Modern Opera”. To achieve success, I feel that the people at the ENO need to start committing to the opera they produce. If they want to pursue the new and daring, then they must swear off the 1980s and find a place in the modern world. If it were me, I would rather be the body that inspires the love of opera, than just an opera house that is lost in the divide between the loved and the daring.

Jonathan Davies, September 2020

Jonathan has also written:

What's Wrong with Isolde? A Feminist Critique of Wagner

Conlon Nancarrow / Studies for Player Piano (1948-1992)



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