A tragic turnaround

OPERA Orpheus and Eurydice ENO, London
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The Independent Culture
The happy ending is a problem. And it isn't just that our cynical Nineties sensibilities balk at the tidiness of it, that part of us would - in the cause of great drama - be happier if Orpheus were not, if indeed we could indulge our emotions at his expense and leave the opera, as Wieland Wagner once did, with that great and timeless lament for Eurydice echoing in our imaginations. It isn't even that the myth itself is incomplete, depriving us not only of the tragedy but of the arousing spectacle of Orpheus being dismembered by female followers of the god Bacchus. Imagine what Deborah Warner could make of that. But Gluck didn't write any of this, and the real problem with his happy ending lies in its length. An opera of nigh-on perfect concision is rendered top-heavy by it. And by it, I mean that whole sequence of ritual dances before we get to the final chorus.

The temptation, of course, is to darken the ending, to play against it, perhaps even to use these dances in a choreographic re-enactment of the myth. And while I respect director / choreographer Martha Clarke's decision not to corrupt what Gluck effectively left us with, there's no doubt in my mind that the closing minutes of her new production for English National Opera are a serious anti-climax to what has gone before - most of it very simple, very austere, some of it very beautiful. But at the close she goes for symmetry, for a sunny flip-side to the sombre opening scene (even the Furies are now playfully invoked) but culminating in a perfunctory gesture of jubilance with several of the company discarding their heavy coats of mourning and flinging them into the air. Now there's a moment which far from liberating our spirits, leaves them marooned, quite literally, between a rock and a hard place. Well, a great many rocks, actually.

Designer John Conklin has them strewn across the Coliseum stage like so much geological study matter. They are the ancient burial ground, the forbidding threshold of the underworld, the rocky road of Orpheus's emotional journey. Muted back cloths transport him and us from the deepest canyons of his despair to the temple of hope and thanksgiving at Petra. But there are other figures in this landscape. Indeed, they are an integral part of it. The life-force of it. Clarke's "dancers" are the embodiment of "the Orpheus experience". They are his travelling companions, his tormentors, his salvation. In the beginning they are a multiple reflection of his grief, the women leaping ecstatically into the arms of their menfolk only to fall lifeless at their feet. And then the figure of Eurydice rises from their midst like Lazarus to leave Orpheus with but one single backward glance. And in that one glance, that fleeting farewell, we see his undoing. It's a marvellously theatrical moment and like everything else in Clarke's production (bar that silly final gesture) quietly outspoken. Best of all is her vision of the pure sky and clear light and tranquil love life of the Elysian Fields. A naked figure perches himself atop the highest rock like Rodin's Thinker, there to survey the white dawn breaking over the Valley of the Blest. And their naked forms are as pure and unselfconscious and strangely sexless in silhouette as they will be in the warm light of day. And all the while the chorus, ranged antiphonally in the stage boxes, look on, observers, commentators, an extension of our own experience as members of the audience.

To her credit, Clarke is at pains to respect the score's almost supernatural purity. Its wonderfully subdued colourations, like the lachrymose trumpet which shadows so much of the sombre first act, are beautifully mirrored in the almost monochromatic feel and texture of her staging. But in Jane Glover's conducting, a greyness pervades, a fundamental lack of personality. The original 1762 version played off faded copies - oddly bloodless. And untidy, even flabby (not that the Coliseum's acoustical reflections were helping any). Michael Chance (Orpheus) had a marvellous evening until his great lament where suddenly tiredness overwhelmed him and the reach of the voice foreshortened. But still he dared to take the third stanza down to where it was almost too personal to share. Lesley Garrett was, as ever, Lesley Garrett, high octane but of narrow emotional and vocal range. Helen Williams sang sweetly as Amor. The happy ending is all down to her, of course.

Further perfs Fri, 12, 21, 25, 27 March, 4, 9, 12, 17 Apr. Booking: 0171- 632 8300