In the abyss
09/11/2001 - and 14, 19, 21, 25, 27 September, 2 October
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice
Alice Coote (Orpheus), Helen Williams (Eurydice), Jeni Bern (Amor)
ENO orchestra and chorus
Harry Christophers (conductor), Elaine Tyler-Hall (revival director)
It seemed to be business as usual tonight at the ENO, as at other London theatres, in spite of major security disruptions in the nearby City, and general trauma at the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. Perhaps we are in collective clinical shock in London, not engaging with reality because it hasn’t sunk in yet. But ritual is a way as old as civilisation (and perhaps older) of dealing with the unbearable; a performance of Gluck’s Orpheus is probably as therapeutic as anything could be.
Gluck’s opera takes you from loss through despair to acceptance: the condition for Orpheus to get Eurydice back is essentially that he admits she is lost to him: hope is a way to ease the pain until you can accept that what is lost is in the past, where it can still be a source of a little pleasure. Che faro, Orpheus’ aria after the second "death" of Eurydice, brings melodic elements that have been floating around disconsolately together in a coherent expression of grief. This is what prompts Amor to give her back to him, but the following finale is a restrained praise of art, not of love or life.
Martha Clarke’s original production, from 1997, was always dark. Elaine Tyler-Hall has subdued even the huggy rejoicing at the end, and in general tied things in more closely with the mood of the music, making the dance set pieces clearly separate and more obviously characterized. Harry Christophers in contrast has beefed up the music with controlled energy, making the tension of despair and hope equally relentless.
Alice Coote, singing Orpheus for the first time, sang powerfully, with an unsubtle tone that was sometimes very beautiful and sometime raucous, but with great feeling. Small and isolated looking, her Orpheus was always a poet observing his own emotions as he experienced them. Helen Williams was a bit of a harridan Eurydice, difficult to avoid when her only scene is a hissy fit, and Jeni Bern was a strapping Amor.