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THE FIRST three operas in the English National Opera’s ambitious Orpheus season have had mixed reviews, with empty seats prompting the company to sell tickets at half price.
Yet the fourth and final production, Philip Glass’s Orphee, is arguably the most anticipated, not least because Phelim McDermott’s production of his opera Akhnaten earlier this year was a resounding success.
In Glass’s two-act chamber opera, based on French film-maker Jean Cocteau’s eponymous 1950 film and with the libretto drawn from its script, director Netia Jones deploys projections of the classic film.
Set in post-war France, the ancient Greek hero is replaced by a 20th-century celebrity poet and his wife Eurydice, a bored housewife.
In Cocteau’s version of the myth, Orpheus (Jean Marais) witnesses the death of a younger poet, Cegeste, who is killed during a drunken brawl at the Cafe of Poets after being run over by two motorcyclists.
The Princess or Death, played by the alluring Maria Casares, then takes Cegeste off in a Rolls-Royce driven by her chauffeur Heurtebise (Francois Perier), an apparent symbol of Hades ferryman Charon.
Orpheus is invited along for the ride and what follows is a magical tale in which mirrors act as gateways between the land of the living and the dead. The mirror symbolises death — we sense our mortality as we see ourselves get old in them — while film itself has the power of bringing the dead back to life.
Beguiled by the Princess, Orpheus falls in love with her and shuns his wife Eurydice who Heurtebise, in turn, has fallen for.
Based on the 90-minute film, this is not the most epic of Glass’s works. But it benefits from the fact that director Jones is also a consummate video and costume designer and Lizzie Clachan’s set, with moving floors and screens, a platform that lowers from the stage’s ceiling and projections of digital clocks, is wonderfully “Glassian.”
Donned imposingly in Gestapo-like garb, Nicky Spence is a brilliant Heurtebise, Nicholas Lester has a real likeness to Marais, Jennifer France’s Princess/Death is as cold and enchanting as Casares while — a nice touch referencing her domesticated life — Sarah Tynan’s Eurydice wears a dress that matches the design of the table cloth and cushions at home.
And there’s a wonderfully Kafkaesque moment when Death and Heurtebise are on trial in the Underworld, presided over by four stuffy old men.
Those not familiar with the surreal film, unwise if you're paying upwards of £100 for a ticket, will find the plot baffling.
Nevertheless, while stage adaptations of classic films — particularly ones as enigmatic as this — often pale in comparison, Jones’s production does Cocteau’s work justice.
Runs until November 29, box office: eno.org.
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