Orphée, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Oh, the beauty! Oh, the crowds! Oh, the pointlessness of it all...
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The Independent Culture

Back in the existential torpor of puberty, I had a bit of a thing for Jean Cocteau. I watched his films, mooned over his drawings, and took to wandering around with a battered pack of Gauloises Bleues in my army surplus bag. Like most people, I grew out of it.

Back in the existential torpor of puberty, I had a bit of a thing for Jean Cocteau. I watched his films, mooned over his drawings, and took to wandering around with a battered pack of Gauloises Bleues in my army surplus bag. Like most people, I grew out of it.

Philip Glass isn't most people. Orphée, the first of his Cocteau-inspired music theatre trilogy, is based on the movie of the same name. Though ravishing to look at, the film is a staggeringly pretentious reworking of the myth. Cocteau's charmless poet hero is careless of his wife, obsessed with his status, and neurotically jealous of a young avant-gardist. Having witnessed the murder of his rival, he falls in love with a mysterious woman, La Princesse, who is his own death and, therefore, his passport to immortality. Had that great humaniser Offenbach been able to travel to the future, you can imagine the fun he would have had with this nonsense. But Philip Glass isn't Offenbach.

Glass's following is such that a grilled cheese sandwich would fill the Linbury Studio if it bore his imprimatur. Hence the second performance of Orphée was packed to the rafters, which, in Francisco Negrin's hydraulically engineered staging, move up and down with flamboyant frequency. Like the movie, Glass's score is frigidly beautiful of aspect. Flute, trumpet and clarinet shiver narcissistically over broken chords of single strings, harp and synthesizer. As in his Fifth Symphony, voices are pegged to the stave like washing on a line; their rhythms approximate to speech, their notes occasionally rising or falling with excitement, fear or anger.

Despite the obvious expense of Es Devlin's designs and the polished performance of the orchestra under Rory Macdonald, Orphée feels like a student production. To all intents and purposes it is, though it is an odd showcase for the Vilar Young Artists. Few of them seem at ease in an idiom that exposes the slightest delay between consonant and vowel. Only Jared Holt (a powerful Orphée) and Liora Grodnikaite (electrifying as Aglaonice) consistently sing through their lines. Ha Young Lee is a fleetingly brilliant Princesse, while Katie Van Kooten and Andrew Kennedy make Eurydice and Heurtebise more sympathetic than Glass or Cocteau cared to do. Small roles in core repertoire are excellent training for large roles in core repertoire, but not much cop when it comes to this pointillist style of singing.

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