What do Christian Dior, Jean Cocteau and Aldous Huxley have in common? The answer will be revealed this week in Ashley Page’s new production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice for Scottish Opera.
It is strange meeting up with Page – once referred to as “the wild boy in British dance” – in what seems an unfamiliar context. A rehearsal has just ended, the singers have gone home, and the former Royal Ballet dancer, choreographer and one-time artistic director of Scottish Ballet looks perfectly relaxed and at home in the opera studio.
He’s sitting in front of designer Johan Engels’ dazzling white set, dominated by a huge rotating box. This is clearly an Orfeo of no fixed abode – any visualisation of mythical Elysian fields or Hades and the underworld is in the abstract. Time and place are open to interpretation.
So where does Christian Dior come into it? “There’s a costume reference to the 1950s Dior New Look,” he reveals. “Amore is kind of modelled on Grace Kelly in Rear Window, so we’ve used the Dior thing for the two parties that bookend the piece, the very sombre funeral one, and a very upbeat cocktail party, and just re-accessorised”.
Cocktail party? At what point do Vodka Martinis play a part in this mythological rescue tale? Apparently the idea sprang from Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée. “The whole thing of how Cocteau updated the story to his contemporary time and looked at the storyline and embellished it encouraged Johan and I to make some kind of reference to the film,” Page explains.
“Cocteau’s Princess has this flash great car, and she’s got these two motorcycle outriders, her henchmen, who keep running people over and killing them. Our Furies are modelled a bit like that, though because they’re dancers in the opera, we’ve had to adapt that.”
Page says his concept is not so much contemporary as timeless, with Orfeo and Euridice dressed in plain white linen, and the souls depicting a mix of different eras – it’s similar to what another dance man, Mark Morris, did with his 2007 Orfeo for the New York Met, when he depicted his souls as famous people from history.
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And what part does Huxley play in all this? “In the Elysian fields, we’ve made the characters almost too lovely. You know that drug Soma in Brave New World which makes them happy, makes them never question anything, and the same thing happens every day? It’s a bit like they’re on that,” says Page.
I’m getting the impression that this dancer-turned-director is having lots of fun getting his highly-personalised production into shape. It isn’t his first experience with opera. Since leaving Scottish Ballet in 2012, under circumstances he still recalls with distaste, and finding new outlets for his talent, such as the televised choreography (with fashion guru Vivienne Westwood) he created for the 2014 Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day concert, he has directed Puccini’s La Bohème for Nevill Holt Opera and choreographed Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie for Glyndebourne.
Was it the prominent dance element in Gluck’s opera – extensive routines like the famous Dance of the Blessed Spirits – that attracted him to this latest operatic challenge?
Actually, he says, it’s about a broader desire to investigate other forms of theatre. “It wasn’t because I felt I needed to do an opera with a lot of dance in it, though the fact there is in this case certainly makes me feel comfortable,” he admits, adding that he has further ambitions to move into film and plays.
Other choreographers have turned their minds to Gluck’s opera in the past, including Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten, whose 2004 Edinburgh Festival production had dancers simultaneously shadowing the singing cast.
“That’s what usually happens with dance in opera”, he says. “It’s certainly been a trend of the last 10 to 15 years. I’ve avoided that, partly because it’s been done a lot, but also because there’s a more interesting way of using the dancers.”
At a broader level, Page has adopted a potentially controversial stance. This is neither Gluck’s original Vienna version of 1762, nor is it his revised Paris version of 1774. “It’s a bit of a mix,” he confesses.
“When Gluck did the Paris version he added all the famous bits we think of now – Euridice’s aria Que faro, the dances of the Furies and the Blessed Spirits – and almost completely rewrote the Orfeo role. We’ve taken the Vienna version as our core structure, and kind of added these bits. It’s basically a hybrid of the two.”
More contentiously, he and Engels have not only moved the Dance of the Furies to an earlier point in the opera, just before the scene in Hades, but have split the production into two, rather than the traditional three parts. “Our first half ends with Orfeo being led through the gates of Hades and off, so the next time we see him in our Act 2 he is wandering into the Elysian fields. When the audience comes back, he’s made it to the next level, and that’s really what we felt more comfortable with.”
This looks set, then, to be an Orfeo ed Euridice with a difference. As a lover of music – he has created dance roles to music as varied as Bach and Stravinsky – Page knows and respects the integrity of Gluck’s forward-thinking score. And he feels perfectly in tune with his small cast, and with music director Kenneth Montgomery, a specialist in this particular operatic style.
But when it boils down to basics, Page is a dance man, and that’s what set the direction and ultimate tone of his new production. “Once I got that right,” he says, “and we found a gestural physical language that worked, everything else fell into place. I’m feeling right on top of it at the moment.”
• Scottish Opera’s Orfeo ed Euridice opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 19 February, and the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on 3 March, www.scottishopera.org.ukLink to article