ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE – AN INSIGHT WITH DENISE MULHOLLAND

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Have you ever loved so deeply you’d be willing to go till the ends of the earth to reach your beloved? Even if that end coincides with the underworld?

I had the pleasure to watch the long-awaited production of Orphée et Eurydice at the Manoel Theatre.

This is an opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck around the famous myth of Orpheus, with a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. Director Denise Mulholland decided to stage the Berlioz version of 1859 with the role of Orpheus transposed for a mezzo-soprano/contralto. She managed to masterly transpose the key elements of the Orphic myth and Gluckian intention, and the minimalist and metaphorical set design, brilliant costumes and intuitive choreography were the backdrop for two dazzling performers.

What inspired you to take on this production?

I was struck by the obsessive nature of Orphée’s love for his deceased wife. It had moved beyond love and into obsession. Unable to think of anything else but her, he spends his days repeating her name and calling for her. I knew that I didn’t want to set the piece in its original context but I wanted to find a period which used symbolism and which embraced mythology and – to be perfectly blunt – a period which embraced death. The Victorians were ruled by a Queen who spent 40 years of her life in mourning for her husband, and as a result, they were a society who actively celebrated death. The more I read about the mourning culture of the Victorians, the more I felt it would be a perfect setting for this opera.

Gluck is mostly known for his intention to reform opera by giving more importance to the lyrics and finding the right balance between bel canto, virtuosity and meaning. How much was your mise en scène in line with this?

I think Gluck strikes the balance between moving the plot forward through the recitative, and allowing the singers to have the chance to shine in their beautiful arias. Of course, this version is the Berlioz edition of the Gluck opera, so there’s a degree of romanticism in the piece which we really tried to emphasise. Directing opera is always tricky because you have to accommodate the physical challenges that the singers face, but still try to tell the story. The key is finding the moments where you can rely on the passion and beauty of the music to carry the story, allowing the singers and the audience some moments to breathe, as it were.

The minimalism of the set design was dominated by a sort of metaphoric door: an ancestral gate which grounds its roots in the Maltese ganutell. Tell us more.

In fact, this wreath was inspired by the Victorian craze for making jewellery from the hair of their loved ones. Hair would be cut from the deceased and used to create brooches, bracelets, necklaces, watch fobs, rings and even wreaths which would be framed and placed on the wall. This was very intricate work – the more we researched, the more we discovered. Here in Malta, this practice was very popular too. We found several examples which, although made from human hair, had a strong echo of the ganutell, and that gave us the idea for the main structure. The more we played with this idea, the more we realised that we could use this wreath in all four acts. By removing the top section, we could turn the wreath into the traditional lyre of the myth; by inverting it we could create a halo effect for Elysium, and we could raise this structure to create the idea of the Gates of Hell.

If you look closely at the wreath, you would see that it’s made of bristles – all coloured in copper – the idea is that it’s made from the hair of Eurydice, who in our version has the long amber hair so beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

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Costumes and choreography definitely complete the scenario. How did it all begin?

Luke Azzopardi, our costume designer, had a real affinity with the period we chose to set the opera in, and he certainly elevated the production to another level. Along with the fantastic Dorothy Ebejer and the team from Teatru Manoel, he designed upwards of 80 costumes for this piece. We wanted to emphasise the rigidity of high Victorian mourning in Act I, and create the idea of Orphee’s hell in Act II by dressing all the females as a deconstructed version of Eurydice. In Act III, we wanted Elysium to be soft and flowing and more in keeping with the aesthetic of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Luke works strongly in colour blocking, so we chose purple for Orphée and mustard for Eurydice around which the lights and chorus costumes were planned.

The choreography was in the hands of the amazing Mavin Khoo and Niels Plotard from ŻfinMalta. It’s safe to say that together, they took my ideas to a different level entirely. I’m so in awe of their work – the dancers are spectacular in this piece. I worked with Mavin and Niels on each act, discussing the concepts and themes we wanted to explore. Then I worked with the dancers, developing the ideas in their sessions. We were also lucky enough to have Mavin, Niels and the dancers come in to our chorus rehearsals to work with the cast. I was keen from the start to integrate the dance as much as possible and I think we achieved that. It was a challenge for the chorus to deal with the different levels of physicality needed for a piece like this, but they’re a brilliant group to work with – uncomplaining and determined to succeed. They were an essential part of this production and I’m very proud of their achievements.

Which challenges did you face?

Opera’s always challenging. The challenges are generally the same – it’s a very difficult art form to execute. So many moving parts contribute to this one production, but I think we met each challenge head on and I was very happy with how the piece evolved.

Your eclectic and versatile profile gives us hope for new future projects. Would you like to share with us a project that you’d like to realise in the next steps?

I love working with young actors and I’m lucky enough to be principal tutor for the Teatru Manoel Youth Theatre. I get to spend my Saturdays in the company of 20 talented actors and we’re currently devising a new and original piece called Rubbish which will be performed in June. It will be mixing story-telling, puppetry and physical theatre, discussing displaced members of society – young people who, for one reason or another, have been deemed as rubbish and thrown away. Now my brain has to leave the world of Hades and Elysium and focus on this next project. That’s the blessing of working as a director here in Malta – one day it’s opera… the next, who knows?