The Organ

Philip Glass: Orphee

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
27th May 2005

It has taken a long time for Glass' Orphee to get a professional production in this country but my delight at hearing the work live is unfortunately tempered by the problematic staging. Many great ideas need considerable re-thinking before they can become practical and the problem with radical new approaches to staging a work can be a lack of consideration for the effect upon the audience.

Es Devlin's design must have seemed wonderful in discussion. The Linbury is a highly adaptable space so the idea of putting half of the audience on stage and then using the orchestra pit as a flexible acting area would seem to have much to recommend it. The problem came with the sightlines. Those in the main audience may have been able to see down into the dropped pit but those of us on stage were not so lucky. Similarly the large arrow upon which the work was mainly set managed to blot out the subtitles when raised or full of singers. The singers were amplified and from my position at the end of a row on stage the sound often did not match the direction of the singer. There was no problem with the quality of the reproduction and balance was excellent throughout but the disembodied voices were not what Glass or presumably director Francisco Negrin had in mind.

Thankfully this did little to stop my enjoyment of the work itself. Glass' chamber operas have an intensity which is often beguilingly simplistic but equally devastating in the overall impact of the score. Though not as traumatic as The Fall of the House of Usher, Orphee builds its tension with great subtlety, leading to a wonderful scene when Orphee finally confronts Death and embraces her. Ha Young Lee was a powerful and highly lyric Princess - the figure of Death - and a fine foil for Jared Holt's noble and troubled poet. Andrew Kennedy impressed as Heurtebise in a cast which had no vocal weaknesses. Choral singing was passionate and the orchestral sound well focussed. Rory Macdonald shaped the score with great skill and a sense of the long musical lines which underpin its development.

Quite why it has taken a work by a very popular, serious composer so long to get a professional production in this country, and why even then it was mounted in a small house for a very limited number of performances must remain a mystery.