Orpheus Cycle at the English National Opera

The ENO took the extraordinary step of staging an Orpheus cycle with different composers tackling the story of a man who goes down to hell to bring back his love. This myth is widely known and has been the basis of countless works, so it was interesting to see, which 4 works were chosen. The range was wide, starting with classical and comical takes via Gluck and Hoffmann, but I was lucky enough to see the most current operas, namely Harrison Birtwistle’s THE MASK OF ORPHEUS (with electronic music by Barry Anderson) and Philipp Glass’s ORPHEE. 

Review by Bee.

Both composers challenge the audience to sound worlds that are strange and often not melodical at all, but which are nonetheless emotive, expressive and most challenging.

THE MASK OF ORPHEUS was premiered in 1986 and has never been put on in its entirety since, so anticipation was more than high. I’ve read several reviews condemning this production for its spectacle – and spectacular it is. But contrary to these views, I – as a non music scholar – found the tsunami of images on top of the wild sea of music a wonderful addition, not a detriment. Because it was so outrageous and over the top, I was overwhelmed within 5 minutes and after that never even entertained the idea of understanding the piece. That was a great relief and helped to let loose and sink into the outstanding music even more. Yes, the opera world was waiting excitedly for this and might look down on this production for being gauche and not adhering to the purity of the music, but in my opinion the staging was speaking to audiences, who are not familiar with contemporary classical music and need a more visual access to something so unfamiliar and unsettling.

The Mask of Orpheus

Receiving its first full staging in London since its 1986 premiere at the London Coliseum, The Mask of Orpheus is Birtwistle‘s complex retelling of the Orpheus myth.

If you want to remain in the ivory tower of high culture and put class above everything else, this will not be for you, but if you are a layman, the wonders and ugly beauty of the THE MASK OF ORPHEUS might challenge you to dive deeper and free your mind. I for one have never seen anything like this and my life would be poorer if I had missed it.

Mask of Orpheus curtain call at ENO

English National Opera’s 2019 production of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, featuring artistic direction by Daniel Kramer, music direction by Martyn Brabbins and costume design by Daniel Lismore.



ORPHEE on the other hand took a more classical road to contemporary music. The libretto retells the story of Cocteau’s film with Orpheus actually falling in love with death itself. The ENO is known to be the foremost home of Philip Glass’ work in England and it shows in the assuredness and directness of this production. The audience, well versed in Glass’ work, seems to have a positive outlook on any new staging, which made for a nice, buzzing atmosphere at this press night. The Coliseum in all its grandeur is of course a wonderful location to put on the minimalistic music in a simple and stern form – a juxtaposition that just works. The classy production design was using familiar Glass themes like numbers and tangents to illustrate the story as well as film clips from the movie, which inspired the work.

Orphee by Philip Glass

Glass’s Orphée, based on Jean Cocteau’s cinematic retelling of the Orpheus myth, is a parable about the dangers of self-obsession

With this debut at the ENO, young music director Geoffrey Paterson showed his firm grip on the proceedings and he certainly put his own stamp on it. The orchestra and the singers were all in fine form and you could tell that they had an easy familiarity with this composer that gave this production a feeling of fitting like a glove. 

It all seemed right without trying hard – to me the best way to experience any new work.

Orphee Philip Glass at ENO London

Though married to Eurydice, Orphée falls in love with an enigmatic Princess. Obsessed with immortality, Orphée moves between the worlds of the living and the dead, finally becoming immortal when the Princess sacrifices herself for him.



Judging by these 2 productions alone, I would call the Orpheus cycle a wonderful success and I am looking forward to revisiting the ENO soon.