The week in classical: The Mask of Orpheus; Reich/Richter – review

Coliseum; Barbican, London
Harrison Birtwistle’s monumental early opera is revived in an epic tussle between myth, meaning, the lustrous and the lurid. Plus, a sensory feast with Steve Reich and Gerhard Richter

Answer, answer, answer. This refrain, both plea and command, concludes Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Mask of Orpheus, a nearly four-hour epic of rampant and elusive complexity. Answers are hard to come by. It tells the story, in multiple versions simultaneously, of the musician god who tries to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, from Hades. Its only full staging was at the London Coliseum in 1986. Whatever you thought of the extravagant new production by English National Opera, conducted by Martyn Brabbins and directed by the company’s former artistic director, Daniel Kramer, it was a musical event with guts: composers were out in force on first night, a reminder that The Mask of Orpheus, landing on 20th-century music like a meteor, had no precedent or successor.

Riddles are key to every Birtwistle opera, from Punch and Judy (1968) to Gawain (1991) and The Minotaur (2008). They exist in the text – “Riddle me ree”, to borrow from Punch – and for the listener. None is easy to unravel. None has tunes to hum, if that’s your priority. In The Mask of Orpheus, which has an impossibly dense libretto by Peter Zinovieff, music, song, dance and mime are yoked into a massive, unwieldy entity. It needs a large, unconventional orchestra, dark with bassoons, trombones, tubas; luminous with electric guitar, mandolin, soprano saxophones. Two conductors have to marshal these forces. Brabbins was second in command on the 1997 NMC recording. Now he is, brilliantly, in charge, with James Henshaw as his sous conductor, assisted by Adam Hickox. Pioneering electronics (by the late Barry Anderson), based on the sounds of a harp, add sumptuous beauty.

The work consists of 126 separate episodes, grouped in threes: a three-ring circus in which the entire cast are, metaphorically, on high wires. The central, tenor role of Orpheus the man – who is also portrayed, by separate performers, as Myth and mimed Hero – is herculean in length. Peter Hoare’s formidable account, often half-naked or draped in a short red robe and looking uncannily like Eddie Izzard or a grizzled Gary Glitter, deserves an Oscar. The rest of the cast, including James Cleverton, Robert Hayward Claron McFadden and five outstanding ENO Harewood Artists and ENO chorus, as well as dancers, excelled.

Watch a trailer for The Mask of Orpheus

Kramer, with set designer Lizzie Clachan and costume designer Daniel Lismore, has tackled Zinovieff’s knotty text with sleuth-like detail, even if the production’s aesthetic is not to your taste. I often recoiled, but there’s no doubt it was done with seriousness. Whereas the original production (by David Freeman) etched ritual and formality into its enactment, this version has gone for bejewelled, grand-guignol, double-clotted surrealism. The set, lurid and spectacular, a celebrity-style penthouse, is divided into three parts. It nods at the exotic landscapes of Henri Rousseau, and the erotic, feathery excesses of Max Ernst. Amid the surfeit, isolated moments of lyrical and emotional truth hit home: the first entry of Eurydice (an exemplary Marta Fontanals-Simmons), as a gorgeous white insect creature against a pink nimbus; the insidious snakebite; her disappearance, sucked back into Hades, when Orpheus looks back; the stillness of the acrobats hanging on rope at the end.

Should you go? Yes, if you have a tough curiosity about the creative process, the vanity and obsession, hope and failure, of an artist trying to make something new, bigger than life itself. We know from the current Tate exhibition that poor, modest William Blake dreamed of his tiny pictures being “one hundred feet high”. You won’t come out of The Mask of Orpheus saying “that’s entertainment”, but some part of your ears, mind or psyche might have been prised open.

The American composer Steve Reich might seem Birtwistle’s polar opposite. Their careers have developed in parallel for six decades, one out of the European avant garde, the other out of New York’s art scene. It’s the connections that are more striking. Both are pioneers who continue to work, unwaveringly, into their 80s. Reich’s music was first performed in art galleries when concert halls weren’t interested. They are now. He was at the Barbican for the European premiere of Reich/Richter, a bewitching collaboration between Reich, the German painter Gerhard Richter and the film-maker Corinna Belz, first seen at the Shed, New York.

Colin Currie conducts Britten Sinfonia in Reich/Richter at the Barbican.
Colin Currie conducts Britten Sinfonia in Reich/Richter at the Barbican. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

On screen, Richter’s abstract images, using 946-3 (2016) as a starting point, split and multiply into an entire grammar of ornament and colour. Reich’s music, played live – stunningly, by Britten Sinfonia, who also performed his Runner (2016) – sounds as if it’s doing the reverse. The composer’s familiar style of augmentation – of patterns being made longer – stretches into music of slow, almost melodic lyricism precisely when Richter’s imagery is at its most complex. As the visuals return to simple stripes, so Reich’s music whips up into a frenzy. No doubt it all relates to algorithms, pixels and digital wizardry. Yet all that mattered was the expressive power of music and art speaking as one.

  • This article was amended on Sunday 27 October. Martyn Brabbins was second in command on the 1997 NMC recording. This has now been corrected.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Mask of Orpheus


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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