Orpheus X

Orpheus X
3 stars ***
Royal Lyceum Theatre

THERE’S NO DENYING THE strength of the idea at the heart of Rinde Eckert’s Orpheus X, a fierce 21st century version of the myth of Orpheus in the underworld, staged for the American Repertory Theatre as a 95-minute modern opera for three singers and a four-piece onstage band.  In making the central character a mighty rock star, still revered by millions after a long career, Eckert evokes the most powerful and persuasive male hero-figure left in post-modern western culture; the man with the courage to unleash all the anarchic, erotic and Dionysian energy our civilisation spent centuries trying to repress, and yet with the artistry and discipline to make of it something shapely, enduring, even beautiful.  And Eckert’s Orpheus – played by himself as a bald, wrecked but charismatic middle-aged rocker – looks the part to perfection; as does the stage on which we find him, a steely New York warehouse-cum-apartment, whose beams and pillars reflect strange shifting images of blood, honey, and  Eurydice’s retreating form.

The difficulty is, though, that all for all the power of this central concept, Eckert and his director, Robert Woodruff, don’t yet quite seem to have found the dramatic, musical and visual means to do it justice.  They have a fabulous Eurydice in Suzan Hanson, a beautiful bluestocking poet killed one night by Orpheus’s taxi as she steps off a kerb.  Yet the nature of Orpheus’s posthumous  obsession with her seems obscure, as if he was motivated not by the pure love that gives the Orpheus myth its grandeur, but by some strange sense of intellectual inferiority; and the music only rarely achieves the huge power that a genuine fusion between rock and modern opera could unleash.

The climactic moment of the score – when Orpheus, goaded by John Kelly’s sinister Persephone, roars out his song to coerce the underworld into releasing Eurydice – is tremendous, a sound like the birth of the universe colliding with the end of a glam-rock concert; but elsewhere, the strands of music seem to wander separately through the badlands of routine modern opera and fragmentary rock sound.  This remains a hugely charismatic and interesting show, and it raises powerful questions about the modern meaning of the Orpheus myth.  But there’s something unclear, and not quite fully expressed, in its dramatic structure and musical language; and for all its memorable intensity, it still seems like a work in progress.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
EIF p. 24



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