Thumbs down for ENO’s Mask of Orpheus

Thumbs down for ENO’s Mask of Orpheus


norman lebrecht

October 19, 2019

The first reviews of English National Opera’s revival of Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus are discouraging.

The Telegraph signals that ‘for the average audience, this is a physical and mental ordeal’.
Rupert Christiansen begins: ‘Over three hours long, often fiercely cacophonous, with a preposterously arcane text lacking any narrative coherence, The Mask of Orpheus makes no effort to be loved….’

The Guardian’s headline is ‘travesty of a production is nothing to laugh about.’ Andrew Clements writes:

The production is the work of ENO’s departing artistic director Daniel Kramer, and let’s hope it is the last of his shows to be seen there. For this is a wilful parade of self-indulgence, with set designs by Lizzie Clachan translating the action to a sleek modern apartment, and costumes by Daniel Lismore that might be more appropriate in a Rio carnival procession or on the Mexican Day of the Dead. It’s a gaudy display, which does nothing to tease out the complexities of a work that presents the Orpheus story as a bundle of contradictory myths where events are repeated and linear time abandoned, and in which the three main protagonists, Orpheus, Euridice and Aristaeus, are each represented on stage by two singers and a mime, representing the person, the myth and the hero. Instead, Kramer simply adds business of his own, cluttering the stage with irrelevancies. Rather than austere, penetrating ritual, all we get is camp and bling, combined with an apparent insistence on adding comedy to the action, so that the judges of the dead and the furies become a troupe of vaudeville caricatures.

David Nice on
…the big botch is the crucial second act, where Orpheus faces the 17 arches of Hades and is supposed to lose Eurydice again and again. Peter Zinovieff’s text is loose, but not lazy. (Daniel) Kramer takes the sound and fury to signify whatever you want them to, and while the outlines of a real face sometimes emerge in the score – the smokiness of a rare saxophone solo in amongst the wind, brass and percussion, the ghost of a real dance, the desolate calm after the storm – they’re not to be found onstage.



  • double-sharp says:

    How many times do you have to f*ck up, to get fired from ENO, Daniel Klueless??


    There needs to be an Inquiry into how this klutz kept his job after the meltdown of The Wimmin Of Whitechapel. It’s State money he’s wasted here. This is exactly what Cressida Bollocks was appointed to prevent – and look where we are now.


    • P Groves says:

      Hear hear
      Kramer’s a fraud and the board took him on..they should all go, especially the whimsical chairman, who has had at least three complete duff appointments and a Wigglesworth resignation on his watch. Maybe Arts Council England should seriously consider the merits off continuing the company as it is.

      • Una says:

        Far from all their money comes from the Arts Council. This is not State-run Germany.

        • double-sharp says:

          And the tax breaks and charitable status? What does ENO pocket from those? It would not receive its sponsorship dough if there wasn’t tax relief for the donors.

    • Operagirl says:

      Erm…this is his last production, but he is gone officially?!

  • double-sharp says:

    Meanwhile Rupert Christiansen gives a 4* bouncy review to Kurt Weill’s ‘Silbersee’ (‘Silverlake’) presented by ETO at the Hackney Empire. Some London opera-goers will remember the opera’s previous outing, which took the much-loved Abbey Opera into bankruptcy.

    When a national ‘centre of excellence’ can’t get it right in an opera-theatre newly remodelled for technical excellence – but a shoestring operation like ETO keep getting top reviews, there are inevitable conclusions to be drawn about who is getting the funding – and why?

  • The View from America says:

    The mask slips, evidently …

  • opera tourist says:

    Probably Kramer had never heard (let alone seen!) the opera before he chose it for this season! There are so many operas worthy of revival that ROH never stage that ENO should have in their core repertory – and used to when it was Sadler’s Wells Opera!!! The company has virtually no revivable core repertory works now!

    • Operagirl says:

      I won’t defend Kramer’s productions or artistic choices. BUT if you read any of the programme notes he studied this for a long time and he is a passionate Birtwistle fan. I think what we are criticising here is the design not the direction or the music. And that’s mainly because it’s a challenging watch – as it should be. Or have you not even seen it but are commenting?

  • Hilary says:

    I admire both Birtwistle and Lismore but on the face of it, there’s a mismatch here.
    Looking forward nonetheless as the Mask of Orpheus is a milestone piece.

    • double-sharp says:

      No-one has criticised The Mask of Orpheus, Hilary. It was well received on its first outing at ENO – I was there.

      But ENO today is limping along after more than a decade of atrocious mismanagement, and Arts Council sabotage. The present company is unable to do the work justice. Add to this a director whose track record is littered with disaster and incompetence, and you have an opera which should never, ever, have been attempted at present. ‘Throwing things on’ merely to assuage a guilty conscience does operas no favours at all.

      As has been said by others here – there are many other operas on which these costly resources would have been better spent.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    More like millstone surely. How much will they have lost on this production?

    • Hilary says:

      In it’s latest incarnation yes.
      The milestone comment is on the strength of the concert performances I’ve attended and the recordings on YouTube and Spotify. The music is glorious.
      Birtwistle, and Barry Anderson (the electronic interludes) at a peak.

    • Operagirl says:

      Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing shows like this! All opera makes a loss. Do you think we shouldn’t do it at all?!

  • Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    I was at the opening night (near the front of Balcony, near the centre), and, contrary to Nice, think the second act to have been the strongest. There was a real sense of drive and urgency in the orchestral music (although I was not entirely convinced by the off-stage mouthpiece sounds), and some moments of the staging were electrifying, such as the point where Orpheus looked behind him, and the entombment of Euridice.

    However, the first act was badly paced, with the banality of the staging becoming too protracted. Despite this, when the curtain came down eventually at the end of that act, it felt too soon, since the narrative had only just picked up some momentum.

    As for the third act, the gradual musical apotheosis was magical, but the action on stage seemed to outstay its welcome, despite some powerful moments (such as when the lighting turned everything red) and some well judged recapitulation in the choreography (there was one chase across the stage which referenced the first act compellingly, although I was still not entirely clear as to its function).

    In general, the orchestra was outstanding, if a little too peripheral in the first act. Birtwistle’s scoring makes good use of the unusual instrumentation (lots of percussion, but no bowed strings), and did a remarkable job of portraying tension, strain, and even extremity *without* significant recourse to extended techniques. Some of the acrobatics on stage were very impressive, and I liked the portrayal of a doppelgänger concept in having two Orpheuses at times, but a lot of the staging seemed banal: it seemed incongruous for Orpheus to get a drink from the water-dispenser in the midst of the action, and I really did not get why he was only half-dressed a lot of the time. The electronics were well balanced, but the singing did not really seize my attention (I realise that, at times, the singing is supposed to be a background cacophony, and those times worked well; however, when Orpheus is supposed to lead the narrative and drama vocally, he was underwhelming to my ears). All the same, the overall performance was still powerful, and I look forward to hearing it again later in the run.

    • Operagirl says:

      Finally, an intelligent comment.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Interesting that there people out there who can find something to enjoy in works by HB. It’s either generosity or forgetting the existence of opera. Either way, and however compromising such reactions may be, at least HB’s efforts contribute to the life of people seriously interested in contemporary culture, in spite of its pitfalls.

  • I saw THE MASK OF ORPHEUS on opening night ..I sat in FRONT row stalls ..a vg seat for this production as i felt i was at a fashion show not the OPERA

  • Esther Cavett says:

    The electronic music sounds just so dated. Listen to something like STockhausen Kontakte, Hymnen or Gesang der Junglinge and it’s as if freshly minted.
    I found the multiple plot ludicrous.

  • jamesay says:

    HATED it at the premiere all those years ago,…. Emperor’s new clothes!
    A snooze-fest despite a great cast…. but the repetitious score coupled with have “triples” for each character (a singer, a dancer and an actor). To think Kramer (a non-event as a director) was allowed to get his hands on this company AND direct is an appalling (and answerable) waste of money. Another example of a management giving a beginner cyclist a Rolls Royce and not expecting a crash !

    • Chris Newman says:

      =“triples” for each character (a singer, a dancer and an actor).

      I think he copied that from Stockhausen’s Donnerstag, which had been performed and recorded before MoO came out. But for ‘actor’ read trumpet player. I think Karlheinz did the more convincing job

    • Hilary says:

      A slippery analogy if I may say so. Cycling is the way forward and not relatable to car driving.
      Kramer does seem like bad news though.

  • Graeme Hall says:

    I have to say that I am seriously pissed off with ENO. I love the work (went to the first and only production, plus the RFH performance, have the CDs) and was overjoyed at the thought of it being done again. Given my age I will probably never get to see it again. And now this. I will go anyway (tickets, trains and hotels already paid for) and just hope, pray that the production is not as bad as it sounds (though judging from the photos I am not optimistic).