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  • Writer's pictureEmilia Hargreaves

English National Opera; Orpheus in the Underworld Review

I am not a fantastic review writer, but I got a lot of pleasure from making some random notes at the show last night. So here is a compilation of the random notes that I made about this spectacle of a show. #StudentLife means that I was too poor to buy a programme, so I don't really know any of the character or performers names, but here is my #BudgetReview.

English National Opera’s ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’, has me well prepared and rather excited for my trip to hell. Any show in London’s Coliseum is bound to transport you - but Orpheus really takes the audience to a whole new world.

Firstly and most importantly, the first thing I did when I got to this magnificent theatre was buy a cider. (Cider over a programme any day... Priorities) Personally, I find this is the best way to prepare yourself for the review writing process. I was slightly saddened to see that the new Safety Curtain that had been so intensely bigged up on the ENO’s Instagram feed was not being used.

As the curtain opens, the audience is welcomed by a dull and damp feeling stage, but lightened by bubbly clouds made out of balloons. As each character is introduced, I was thrown off by the blatancy that Orpheus was not really playing the violin. I know it isn’t physically possible for him to play in this situation, but it is something that bugged me throughout. The illusion was completely defeated when he just dropped the instrument in the middle of a musical phrase. Maybe this was supposed to be comedic? Not sure, just didn't work for me. When we meet Pluto, I am automatically in awe. Dressed like a 15 year old girl at Halloween, his seductive moves combined with his flowing golden locks heighten the sexual connotations associated with both death and hell.

I enjoyed the prologue, nice and simple and easy to follow. No words or song, just an easy portrayal of everything I needed to know before the show really began. The colourful balloons that blobbed along the stage throughout remind us of the happiness and love that Eurydice and Orpheus once felt for each other. The modest elements of comedy sprinkled throughout were appreciated by the audience, in particular Eurydice giving birth in time to the melody of the music. I did think the audience participation was a little unnecessary. We’re at the opera darling. Not a panto.

Once the full chorus is out on the stage, my faith in theatre is completely restored. As always, they are used to their fullest extent, frequently becoming sheep and countless other animals. This is what I came for. Fully grown adults, who collectively sound like fallen angels, dancing around with gigantic balloons and then spontaneously becoming sheep. Where else would you see this? I mean, other than every drama school ever. Where else could you possibly get this kind of variety? When people think of opera they imagine sitting in a smelly auditorium watching a never ending show about love and betrayal with boring costumes and average singers. ENO presents modern, understandable and relatable shows which incorporate features to attract every consumer group.

Sadly though, once the chorus has fled, I tend to get bored very quickly. Personally, I need lots of things to look at. Always more than one thing going on, so that if one of them is boring I can switch to the next thing to keep me gripped. This has always been the case though. The creative critic inside me has decided that simply two people on stage performing is just not enough.

All the Opera's that ENO put on at the ‘Coli’ are performed in English, but there was something about this translation that added to the comedic element. Its straight up blatancy was appealing to me and I took to following the words along with the subtitles above the stage, so it was a shame when I was unable to hear some of the words…

Without a doubt, the highlight of the show was the lighting design. Which isn’t normally a feature that I would give much care to. But I really think that the lighting, staging and costuming (mise-en-scene, if you really want me to use my English, Film and Drama A Level knowledge) outshone a lot of the performing. I was thrown off again by the fact that the curtain at the back of the stage obviously had people behind it, as it was often moving and drawing my eye from the lovely duet between Orpheus and Eurydice, which I was actually enjoying. I adored the juicy harmonies which were complemented by the arch of blooming flowers behind them. Loved the beehive costume idea. Very clever! Headdresses with bees attached via wires. Genius idea. But I was disappointed again when the smoke machine went off. Smoke machines are only really effective when they’re used properly, and once this one went off, I couldn’t see any of the performers centre stage for at least three minutes. Fantasty destroyed again.

I am a big fan of the idea that death is sexy. There has always been and I reckon there always will be something mysterious and illusive about death. For some, I suppose. It really is quite tantalising. And Pluto does exceedingly well to emphasise that. When all the elements of theatre worked well together the fantasy continued. And as the chorus return, I am back on the edge of my seat. Dressed in complete morph suits with skirts made from balloons, the cloudy chorus look effortless. I don't know if I can really call it a group dance, but their routine here was gold. I worship this group of artists and their performance here was super cute.

I also cherished the fact that the ‘Narrator’ was known as ‘Public Opinion’. I think that is such a valid conceptualisation, particularly with everything going on in the world at the moment. People always have something to say, and that will never leave you. And for some (Eurydice and Orpheus), the Public Opinions of their life take over.

When we meet the Gods, I am in awe of the costumes. Each god is dressed impeccably. Either an overly sequinned gown or a suit, unless you are Jupiter, who wears whatever he damn wants, because, duh, he’s Jupiter. In a simple shorts and shirt, I got some extreme Morgan Freeman vibes there. On a personal note, I really admired Cupid’s LED light up, gold sequinned converse, and I am on my way to the theatre to steal them.

The chorus dressed as clouds and “oooing” was a relaxant in comparison to the vigorous 'towelography' happening on the set next to them. I also approve of the clouds wearing eye masks and going to sleep each night and being woken by a cockerel. Cute!

Pluto returns in his fantastic 70’s flares look. Crushed velvet jacket and firey sequinned flames coming up from the hems of his trousers. Love It! The flamboyance of the lighting design just made me love the little devil even more. This cleaver representation of death shows just how much he loves himself, and how much of a party he is having down in hell. Honestly, I can't wait to get down there! Also, I don't know if it was just me, but I got some properly gay auras from him. Which again, is really quite ironic. And again, Love It!

My notes are a bit all over the place. I am not too great at writing in the dark, but I have written again, ‘ENO Chorus are a gift that everyone needs to hear’. And then I’ve written in capital letters ‘COLOUR’. Which is underlined. The fact that this production was so colourful was really intriguing to me. Because colour isn’t really something you get a lot of then you go to the opera. But I think that ENO is changing that. Their productions are a lot nicer to look at than other companies, and I do think that colour is something that will attract a much wider audience range. If there is always something to look at then you will never loose a customer.

The last image we are left with before the interval is the Gods having a good old boogie and Pluto flossing. Iconic.

Curtain opens on the second half and we are met with ‘PEEP SHOW’ in neon lights. Not sure I liked this choice - but okay. We meet a random Polish dude, who happened to be one of my favourite characters. Personally, after being cast as ‘The Drunk’ at drama school, I felt like I had a deep connection with this little dude, who’s name I didn't even catch.

I was bothered by the inconsistent water droplet sound effect which came and went and put me off a lot. Like, just leave it on quietly throughout please. Loved the female chorus dressed as prostitutes in hell. More irony. I love irony! Then I, and half of the audience became very uncomfortable, very quickly when Eurydice basically does the dirty with a fly… Yes. A Fly.

I mean WTF. That’s just weird. Particularly for my 12 year old sister who was sitting next to me.

When Eurydice came out in her corset covered in balloons and the members of the male chorus popped each one, a really strong message was put across. The number of times a man will enter a woman's personal bubble without consent. It happens so frequently. As I started to drift off into my own thoughts about the issue, everyone on the stage got up and did the CanCan! If anyone in the audience was asleep, this is when they woke up and got back into it. When you can see that the cast is really having fun, then you really want to watch. Everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives. And it is moments in shows like this that I would kill for. To be on stage, having fun, doing what I love. GIMME!

The show finishes with Jupiter and Pluto, Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, shaking hands. As friends. Mates. Pals. United. Like the world should be.

Some pretty ‘out-there’ choices from Director Emma Rice, in this funky show. And I think that most of it worked.

I enjoyed. Probably would see again if I got the opportunity to.

I would give a solid 3.5, maybe even 4 out of 5.

Appealing for all ages and genders, anyone really! A great opera to start with if you’ve never been, an interesting spectacle if you are a frequent opera visitor. Great. Me likey.

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