CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Virginia Opera Does It Again

La Princesse leads Cégeste to the underworld -- Jonathan Blalock (Cégeste) and Heather Buck (La Princesse) in Orphée, Virginia Opera, 2012 (photo by David A. Beloff)
Virginia Opera has moved into the lead position as the local opera company most willing to take risks and challenge its audience. After winning new productions of Aida and Hansel and Gretel in the fall, it threw all caution to the wind by staging an opera by Philip Glass, and not a well-known one at that, Orphée, premiered in 1993. It was a sparse audience indeed that showed up for last night's performance at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax, and it thinned out even more amid some grumbling at intermission. Based on the 1949 film of the same name by Jean Cocteau (French libretto adapted by Glass and Robert Brustein), Orphée did not impress me (or others) that much on a recent recording on Glass's Orange Mountain Music label. It again became apparent to me how much Glass's repetitive music relies on a visual element -- true of both his operas and his film scores -- to bring it to life. In this staging, created for Glimmerglass Opera and taken to Portland Opera for the production from which the OMM live recording was made, the work became many times more hypnotic and alluring.

available at Amazon
Glass, Orphée, P. Cutlip, L. Saffer,
Portland Opera, A. Manson

(released on July 20, 2010)
OMM 0068 | 101'49"
Cocteau updated the Orpheus legend to the modern era, with a celebrity poet and his wife becoming entangled with a mysterious princess, later revealed to be death herself, and the spirits of those she has taken, wandering in an unexplained other world. It begins when a young poet, Cégeste, is struck by a motorcyclist at their home. Orphée becomes obsessed with his patron, La Princesse, and listens to mysterious messages received from the world beyond through a transistor radio -- quite appropriately for Glass's music these cryptic communications, in a sort of Symbolist nonsense style, are repeated over and over. The princess's chauffeur, Heurtebise, takes a shine to Orphée's wife, Eurydice, helping to guide her husband to find her in the underworld after she, too, is struck by a motorcyclist. A panel of judges sends Orphée and Eurydice back home, but the banal reality of living with someone you are not allowed to look at becomes intolerable and Orphée seeks out death to spend eternity with the Princess. She instead sacrifices herself to make Orpheus immortal.

Much of this cast's magic is due to the regal presence, vocally and dramatically, of soprano Heather Buck as La Princesse. We last reviewed her as a venomous Queen of the Night in an odd Magic Flute at Santa Fe Opera, and the same icy strengths were assets here as the bewitching figure of death, both loving and terrifying. After the opening scene, in which Glass subordinated his trademark style to an evocation of bubbly jazz, the composer's stripped-down, static music returned to the score, making an elegant characterization of the tense dread of much of the story and especially of the alluring role of La Princesse. Buck was matched vocally by the robust baritone of Matthew Worth and strong, radiant soprano of Sara Jakubiak as Eurydice, and less so by the somewhat pale tenor of Jeffrey Lentz as the silver-haired chauffeur Heurtebise. The supporting cast was distinguished by able performances from the lead judge of Christopher Temporelli, the Poet of Matthew Burns, and the commissioner of Oliver Medina.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Virginia Opera presents Philip Glass’s ‘Orphee’ at George Mason University (Washington Post, February 13)

---, For Virginia opera lovers, it’s a whole new scene (Washington Post, February 4)

Alex Baker, Orphee at Virginia Opera (Wellsung, February 11)

Emily Cary, Matthew Worth sings Philip Glass' 'Orphee' (Washington Examiner, February 7)

Paul Sayegh, Va. Opera's 'Orphée' powerful, haunting (The Virginian-Pilot, January 31)
The single set (designed by Andrew Lieberman) place the action in a bare, modern apartment, dominated by a large reproduction of a head shot of Worth, underscoring the narcissistic self-regard of the title character. Mirrors provide the method of travel between the world of the living and that of the dead, an idea echoed in the first transmission from the transistor radio ("Mirrors would do well to reflect more, I repeat, mirrors would do well to reflect more"). Rather than actual mirrors, which appear only in the hands of the mysterious glazer in this production, director Sam Helfrich instead uses a small army of supernumeraries to create mirror images of most of the characters, who move about the stage in disorienting ways. Conductor Steven Jarvi had his hands full keeping the generally good but sometimes not quite aligned pit, filled by members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, on the same page. His beat was admirably clear and he was generous in cuing the singers on the stage, but it did not always line up as well as it could. Although not perfect, this production is still recommended as a compelling evening of contemporary theater.

This production will be repeated tomorrow afternoon (February 12, 2 pm) at GMU, followed by two performances next weekend in Richmond (February 17 and 19). Virginia Opera has also announced its lineup for next season: Bizet's Pearl Fishers, Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.


Anonymous said...

I saw this much-vaunted production and I simply can not allow another smoke-screen to be published without a challenge. It was the biggest failure I've seen Virginia Opera produce. It was confusing, annoying, toneless, and regretfully, the entire concept was just plain stupid. This may be the greatest case of "The Emperor's New Clothes" syndrome I've ever seen! The night we attended, about half the audience was so "enraptured" that they ran for the nearest exit at intermission! You are NOT in touch with reality - or with what the local opera audience is seeking. Neither is Virginia Opera! I do not fault the singers. They were given virtually nothing to sing and we have heard Matt Worth in a previous production where he was marvelous as Don Giovanni. This was the second stinker in a row for your "Does It Again" Opera company, so in a manner of speaking, you are correct! I don't think you will publish this, but I believe those of us that attend opera for the MUSIC also deserve to be heard! This was most assuredly NOT music - no matter what you choose to call it.

Anonymous said...

I think it was amazing!!!!! good for VA OPERA!!!!! so many young listeners in the house!!! just loved it!!!!!

Charles T. Downey said...

@Anonymous(1) -- I am happy to publish all views, contrary and otherwise, although I would rather you identify yourself. Are you a regular subscriber? A donor?

I think you are right that the company may have burned some of its regulars with this choice. The venue is unfortunately not much of a help. If this performance had been in the city or at least closer and accessible by Metro, they probably would have had a larger audience from young people interested in contemporary music.

Naama Zahavi-Ely said...

I liked this production a lot -- so much so that I saw it twice, once in Norfolk and once in Richmond. I figured that unlike standard repertoire, I couldn't anticipate when I would get another opportunity to see it, so I might as well see it a second time in this run :-) I thought the production was excellent, both musically and dramatically. Bravi to all involved.

For the record, I am not a particular fan of very recent music -- I am an omnivore when it comes to classical music. I am an opera fan and I try to see opera productions wherever I get the opportunity. The Virginia Opera is now on my list of companies to see whenever I can. I am impressed with the work they are doing now, both in traditional repertoire and in less often heard works: it has integrity and is consistently on a very high standard. I plan to come to their productions and recommend them to friends whenever I can. Glenn Winter's talks before the shows are fantastic, combining solid musical insight with accessible and entertaining presentation.

Best wishes to all involve -- keep up the good work!

Naama Zahavi-Ely
College of William and Mary

Anonymous said...

I prefer not to identify myself because I am not only a long-time season subscriber, but a donor as well. It has been interesting to read the other comments about this opera (that so troubled my husband and I along with many others).

I am impressed that you chose to publish my comment exactly as it was sent to you. It is nice to see a free exchange of views which does not happen all that often anymore.

I remain unconvinced that Virginia Opera is going in a direction that will sustain it - I guess we'll just have to wait and see.