Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus is rightly regarded as one of the finest operas written in the second half of the twentieth century. It has only been staged once before, that during its original appearance at the ENO in 1986. Given the expense entailed in staging The Mask of Orpheus, which runs to nearly three hours, and the difficulty in selling tickets for an opera that has a narrow appeal among the wider opera gong public, the paucity of performances is not surprising. Given the precarious financial position of the English National Opera, it is remarkable that they should have undertaken this project in the first place.
Birtwistle’s score for this opera is thrilling as it is unusual. With no strings, but bolstered percussion, woodwind and brass sections along with electronic music overlaying the acoustic instruments in the pit, the score ranges from the hauntingly eery to the cacophonous. Sometimes The Mask of Orpheus even attains lyrical beauty in both the orchestral and vocal lines, but for the most part it is dominated by staccato ejaculations that violently punctuate the confusing and complex narrative weaved together by librettist Peter Zinovieff. The opera is as much his creation as it is Birtwistles. The libretto itself is musically conceived and is as absorbing as the score. Musically, conceptually and in its semi-religious presentation, this is an opera on a Wagnerian scale.
Daniel Kramer, who recently left the position of artistic director at the ENO, directs a lavish production with elaborate costumes by Daniel Lismore and a striking set by Lizzie Clachan. It is a far cry from the minimalism of the 1986 original, and though it is visually arresting at times, this is not a production always at sympathy with this highly ritualistic opera. The mimed interludes, here performed inside glass displays that move across the stage, are effective and moving. The costumes are perhaps at their most evocative in these scenes, simultaneously giving them something of beauty and grotesqueness. The production does lose its away, the tone of the opera is one of Greek conceptual austerity than a drama of the Mexican spirit world, but the latter is what it eventually becomes. Kramer gives a trivial treatment to a very serious opera. The purpose of changing the priests into clowns and the furies into latex wearing nurses with large bosoms and bottoms was entirely unclear.
Among the singers, Peter Hoar is superb as Orpheus the man, spitting out his staccato vowels with great purpose and precision. He maintains the intensity and focus of the role throughout. Mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanais-Simmons, who recently sang Sibel at the Royal Opera House, takes on Eurydice as woman, and finds full use for her clear and open voice, which soars through the more dramatic passages. They are ably supported by Claire Barnett-Jones and Daniel Norman as the two mythical realisations of the two main roles. James Cleverton and Simon Bailey take on the two singing roles for Aritaeus.
Diniel Kramer missed the mark with this production, but with a libretto and score as exhilarating as this and a very good cast of singers, this is a rare opera that must be seen.