Les Enfants Terribles
Steffi Cheong. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo.

Les Enfants Terribles

Opera Parallèle

Director: Brian Staufenbiel
Composer: Philip Glass
Choreographer: Amy Seiwert
Media Designer: David Murakami
San Francisco Conservatory of Music
May 26-28, 2017, Reviewed May 28, 2017
www. operaparallele.org

Opera Paralèlle’s “Les Enfants Terribles” is a Jean Cocteau novel-inspired multimedia cocktail of nearly equal parts opera, filmed images, ballet, spoken word, and live piano accompaniment. Plot lines derivative of the 1972 Franco Zeffirelli film, “Sister Sun, Brother Moon,” and Henrik Ibsen’s play, “Hedda Gabbler,” find their way into the storyline appended to a 1996 piano composition by Philip Glass.

A superbly poised Nicole Paiement conducts the three-piano ensemble of Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Eva-Maria Zimmermann. The Glass score is the show’s compelling element, the powerhouse generator of high production values, where three screens continue the story while characters change costumes, move set elements, or dancers exchange identities with singers. Dance interludes choreographed by Amy Seiwert sum up plot turns in ballet shorthand. A cast of six interprets the in media res story of a sister, Elisabeth (Rachel Schutz), and brother, Paul (Hadleigh Adams), each matched with a ballet body double (Steffi Cheong and Brett Conway).

Circumstance has turned sister and brother into a pair of isolates, resulting in their stunted emotional and psychic development. Having reached adulthood in the suffocating confines of a (too) closely-knit yet alienated Parisian family, they behave toward each other as they did when they were children. Each sibling manipulates the other in the creative ways that children chance upon in order to push an agenda. They draw sustenance from parallel troughs of spite, resentment, and small-scale intrigue. They stage ensuing melodramas, and a “game” they play that looks a lot like sexual intercourse on adjoining twin beds.

Like children, they require a surfeit of attention, and also like children, have short attention spans. In need of in loco parentis validation or its opposite, condemnation, in this lose/lose conundrum, they import onlookers. They manage to scare up not only an audience, but audience participation from two additional characters. One is Gérard (Andrés Ramírez), a friend of Paul’s who narrates the story. The other is Agathe (Kindra Scharich), a workmate of Elisabeth’s whom she flatters into becoming a friend á deux. Both friends, at Elisabeth’s urging, move in with the bedroom-sharing sister and brother. From a purely Feng Shui, social or genetic engineering point of view, this arrangement—part Utopia, part Cowering Inferno—cannot end well, and it doesn’t. The minute you spot the lethal weapons, you correctly guess the ending.

We leave feeling that we’ve gotten so much, and yet so little. Depth arrives collaterally if uncomfortably, in the form of troubling psycho-social sexual questions that the moth-eaten plot manages to liberate. In an era extoling gender fluidity, sex watchers have scrutinized all manner of allied behaviors and permutations—except one: incest, left behind in the trusted custody of the Ancients. Yet, the pressure-cooker present-day nuclear family provides the ideally narrowed platform and perfect storms for binding together siblings-with-benefits who then wash up as skeletons on our cultural beau rivages.

Where, and in what condition do such (mostly) catastrophic forays leave their survivors? Are they infantilized for life? Do they recover thanks to therapy, or by virtue of navigating more quotidian insults? Can they go on to lead “normal” lives in a culture where sexual practices and related power plays bobble about in fluidity, and where “definition” is the suspect stranger marooned on a remote shore?

Glass gives us his de rigeur bass Hanon-like perorations north and south of the ivory coast keyboard’s Middle C. It’s the melodies that are the secret ingredient in this grog. They arrive as snapshot captures of the story’s mildewed ironies and milquetoast turning points. Those sister melodies supported by their brother arpeggios, cultivated vocal entreaties and elaborations, and mobile media and dance interpolations, brought together in the expert calculus of Brian Staufenbiel’s direction, add up to a splendid 90-minute diversion, and one well worth reflecting upon for hours afterward.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.