Eugene Brancoveanu and Marnie Breckenridge in Ensemble Parallèle’s “Orphée”
Photo © Steve DiBartolomeo
Music and libretto by Philip Glass (after a film by Jean Cocteau)
Conducted by Nicole Paiement
Directed by Brian Staufenbiel
Presented by Ensemble Parallèle
Herbst Theater, San Francisco
Feb. 25-27, 2011
The sad story of Orpheus, sweet singer of antiquity who literally follows his wife to hell and back, has inspired artists down through the centuries. The most famous incarnation may be Gluck’s 1762 opera, still in repertory, but, for my money, the most innovative was Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film, “Orphée.” More years ago than I care to recall, I had the privilege of studying this stunning work in a university aesthetics course and have ever since been haunted by Cocteau’s central conceit of Death as a beautiful woman who enters and exits through mirrors. Because, of course, just look into a mirror and you can see your death approaching.
So how do you innovate on innovation? You could write an opera based on such an iconic work, and that’s exactly what the contemporary composer Philip Glass did in 1991. An unabashed homage to the French polymath (Cocteau was a gifted artist and writer, as well as filmmaker), the opera is a word-for-word rendition of the film, but re-imagined here by director Brian Staufenbiel with stunning video and circus effects, especially in the second act. And the result is a thing of exceeding beauty, more surreal than the original, if such a thing is possible. A chamber opera, it is a small work but it looks large and, with a cast of distinguished (if not yet famous) international singers, San Francisco Opera members and Adler Fellows, it sounded first rate. Glass, the acknowledged master of minimalism, has written a score that evokes wit and urgency. There is a hint of Parisian street music in the opening café scene, some jazzy tempi and, at one point, he even quotes Gluck. Perhaps his most powerful writing is in the love scene between Orphée and Death.
Ensemble Parallèle, a young company specializing in contemporary chamber opera—Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” is slated for August—is headed by Nicole Paiement, who ably wielded the conductor’s baton for “Orphée.” The title role was sung by Eugene Brancoveanu, memorable as the Aviator in the San Francisco Opera/Cal Performances’ “The Little Prince” of a few seasons back. Brancoveanu also created the character of Orphée for the European premiere of this opera in Salzburg. Good looking and a fine actor, he also brought a powerful baritone to the role.
Orphée is a famous poet, a little world-weary and looking for new kicks. He finds them in the Princess (really Death, in disguise) a sexy, beautiful mystery woman who commands a crew of shabby circus clowns to do her bidding. Marnie Breckenridge was born for this role. Imperious in boots and bustier, she also can turn tender in her love scene with Orphée—if the hero is “half in love with easeful Death,” his love is more than reciprocated—and both frightened and heroic in the surprising denouement. In addition to her retinue of clowns and a recently deceased poet (Thomas Glenn), the Princess has a reluctant henchman in her chauffeur, Heurtebise (the distinguished tenor John Duykers, who created the role of Mao Tse-tung in John Adams’ “Nixon in China”). Heurtebise is the conscience of this piece, and Duykers imbues him with a kindly sympathy that is curiously at odds with his occupation.
The impressive San Francisco Opera baritone Philip Skinner plays the judge of the afterlife, looming over the rest of the cast in an enormous barrister’s wig, his voice hollowly amplified from the back recesses of the stage. He may not be God but then again he does have the final say on what happens to everybody. It’s pretty creepy and awfully good. That afterlife, by the way, is depicted through Matthew Antaky’s masterful lighting design and a trio of Cirque artists, aerialist Marina Luna, Ajina Slater and David Poznanter, who does wonderful things with a hoop. Wreathed in smoke pumped through an industrial cylinder hose, it is great fun. Set design was by David Dunning, costumes by Christine Crook, and Austin Forbord did the videos.
The one disappointment—and not such a big one at that—was Susannah Biller as Eurydice, Orphée’s somewhat nagging wife. Biller, who recently joined the Adler training program at San Francisco Opera, has a reedy soprano that did not always support her music. Her role, however, is not as major as in the myth. It is Death and the poet who anchor this “Orphée,” and they do it exceedingly well.