Fortunately the symphonic excitements happening elsewhere in the Bay Area last night didn’t keep Ensemble Parallele's production of Philip Glass’s Orphee from getting what looked like an almost full house, though they may have been tapping a new audience source, since the crowd looked distinctly more artsy and stylish (and were noticeably better behaved) than the usual crowd. Good to know that word is getting out about Ensemble Parallele, because their adventurous work needs to continue; the year is young, but there’s a good chance that this production is theatrically and conceptually more striking than any other operas we’re going to get around here, except maybe for Ensemble Parallele’s own upcoming (August 19-21) production of one of my favorite operas, 4 Saints in 3 Acts.
Though the visceral emotional impact of last year’s Wozzeck wasn’t quite there, that is no doubt because the Glass/Cocteau work is in itself more playful and ambiguous than the Berg/Buchner. Last week I watched Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy, for what I realized was the first time; I had assumed I had seen at least one of the films before, possibly back in college, because I am old enough so that the college experience included seeing foreign art films in funky repertory theaters, rather than getting black-out drunk every weekend. (Orphee is about, among other things, aging and wondering about your presence among the rising generations, so you see it all ties in.) Orphee itself was probably my least favorite of the three, but for reasons that make it prime operatic material: the others are more about poetically ambiguous moments of surrealism and Orphee is more about plot and inter-relationships, and it’s handicapped in that regard by the perpetually petulant Orphee of Jean Marais; last night Eugene Brancoveanu’s strong clear voice and appealing presence made the character instantly more sympathetic and interesting.
It helped to have seen the movies so recently, since the plot can be a bit hard to follow, especially if you're expecting a more straightforward rendition of the Orpheus/Eurydice story. But this production kept the locales and mood clear enough (and of course Glass’s score helps differentiate locales, from the antic, carnival-like sounds of the opening scene at the Poet’s Café to the plaintive flute, reminiscent of Gluck, that pierces the Underworld): the domestic scenes were in soft blues and browns; the Underworld scenes used a circus theme (very suitable, as an inversion and parody of our bourgeois world, with clowns as the imps of Hell) in black and red with accents of white and gold. (If the domestic scenes dragged a bit, that is simply in the nature of domestic scenes when contrasted with the glittering and disreputable circus.) The Roue Cyr, a large metal circle which is manipulated by a human rider inside functioning as the spokes of a wheel, took the place of the film’s mirrors as the entry to the Underworld.
This underworld included several fun and talented circus artists – and though it goes against the raffish, outsider nature of the circus Cocteau admired to refer to all circus performers as artists, to our eyes they clearly are artists (aerialist Marina Luna, Roue Cyr artist David Poznanter, and clown Ajina Slater). The circus theme is one of several references to Cocteau’s interests and milieu that are built into the production; another is that the banal plastic dishwashing gloves which are the key to passing through to the underworld become boxing gloves once one is in the Underworld: this is a reference to Cocteau’s interest in boxing (which was also no doubt an interest in boxers).
I knew the reason for the boxing gloves because, thanks to my early arrival, I was in my seat when conductor Nicole Paiement came out for a pre-performance talk, which was for once informative and useful. Here are some other points she made: Glass’s music for this opera, with its transparent scoring and emphasis on supporting the words, is very much in line with classic French operatic style; and the trance-like, dreamlike state his musical repetitions induce is a neat fit with Cocteau’s dreamlike surrealism.
One twist from the usual Orpheus legend is that his great love seems to be not Eurydice (the extremely appealing Susannah Biller), but Death, who takes the form of an elegant and imperious Princess (the fabulous Marnie Breckenridge). Death returns the favor, a violation of the rules of the Underworld (the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the Underworld is an element which, somewhat surprisingly, came out more strongly in this circus staging than in the film itself). The Princess and Orfee’s underworld confession of mutual, transgressive love, right before the Princess sacrifices them both by reversing time and restoring Orfee unconditionally to Eurydice, is the emotional highlight of the evening, brought to intense life by Breckenridge and Brancoveanu. (A minor complaint about the staging: it would be witty to have Death smoking, but when the other characters occasionally light up it seems silly and dated; after all, the opera is supposed to take place in a timeless land, the sort of improbable place where a policeman can refer to a poet as a national hero and no one laughs.)
I haven’t had a chance to mention all of those involved in the production, but it’s a sign of Ensemble Parallele’s outstanding work that they can get so many extremely talented people to put in so much work for what was unfortunately only a two-performance run: in addition to Brancoveanu, Breckenridge, and Biller, whom I’ve already mentioned, and Nicole Paiement conducting, we had John Duykers as Heurtebise, Philip Skinner as a Poet and a Judge, Thomas Glenn as Cegeste and a Reporter, Brooke Munoz as Aglaonice, and Austin Kness as the Police Commissioner. Brian Staufenbiel was the director, Austin Forbord did the videos, Matthew Antaky designed the lighting, Christine Crook designed the costumes, and the supernumeraries, who add a lot to the grotesque and menacing circus Underworld, are Michael Harvey, Charlie Lichtman, and Michael Strickland.