(Alice Busch Opera Theater, home of The Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, Upstate New York, USA.)
Although Sunday afternoon bathed upstate New York in an inescapable humid warmth, the half dozen ceiling fans stationed and circulating throughout the Alice Busch Opera Theater chased it away. Not that it mattered…since the entire audience was under the captivating spell of the Glimmerglass Opera’s sparkling production of Philip Glass' Orphée.
With libretto and composition from Glass himself, the impetus was a carbon copy of Jean Cocteau's 1949 film by the same name, although the Greek myth of Orpheus is interpreted and slightly altered. In this version, the poet Orphée (baritone Philip Cutlip) is sweating La Princesse, the personification of Death sans black robes and scythe (soprano Lisa Saffer). He grows bored with wife Eurydice (soprano Caroline Worra) and spends increasing time with his slick Tivoli radio to escape. Eurydice threatens to leave (and does), hauling around her Louis Vuitton luggage (+8 points…power-up for the retro vintage Poltrona Frau steamer in white leather) Luckily for her, La Princesse has exciting plans for the hausfrau, and sends her henchmen (in the form of two yellow & black neoprene clad motorcyclists) who kill Eurydice in a looped sound track of motorcycles skidding-out. In the middle of all this action is handsome Heurtebise, an auxiliary character inherent to the action, and Cégeste, a rival, oblivious poet that quickly perishes in a drunk vehicle accident and becomes La Princesse’s constant companion.
Here we meet the characters, as the curtain rises on Act I to the scene of a modern loft, with the visible spaces of a kitchen, a large living room and dining room, and a small office. Grey carpet stretched across, with furniture and lighting like a low-grade version of Design Within Reach’s showroom, including homage to bff4e&e Chuck Close and his patented portraiture style hanging on the wall. A party is taking place, and the chorus is dressed as tamed suburban versions of L.A. scensters, huddled in the kitchen around an inebriated poet, Glenn Alamilla’s Cégeste.
(Philip Cutlip as Orphée and Lisa Saffer as the Princess in Philip Glass’ “Orphée”.)
The orchestra was oh so tiny with one instrument from each group representing: one flute, one clarinet, one french horn, etc. The orchestra was extended peppy conducting by a sequined Anne Manson, but some of the soloists were frankly a bit shaky. All voice onstage, however, were bright and clear.
Via the use of mirrors and invisible borders within the living spaces, parallel universes are formed for the doppelgangers to travel (Eurydice, Cégeste, the two messengers of death, and La Princesse). With Act II, we’re in the same apartment, but three judges seated on the couch reside over the trial of Orphée (with three corresponding coffees), and the stage is crowded with all of the doppelgangers.
When the decree comes down that Orphée cannot look at Eurydice in exchange for her resurrection, it is Heurtebise (gorgeous tenor Jeffery Lentz with teh #1 acting skillz) who uses most of his time tutoring the couple on methods of visual avoidance. Humorous dialogue peppers the action. For instance, after Orphée surrenders to the decree (because Eurydice had spent an exasperating spell dodging around the set trying to avoid him), she declares, “There are advantages…You’ll never see my wrinkles.” Of course, everyone knows how the story generally ends. This version, with opera as tragedy, our hero Orphée like a rock star kills himself with a shotgun at his own party crowded with Act I’s revelers after stealing a glance at his wife before she is carried back to Death.
The strengths and appeal of the production lie in its unsentimental, organic, unforgiving, and edgy direction. The synthesis of Glass’s music/libretto and Cocteau’s inspired screenplay create a perfect atmosphere of delicious tension, questioning life and death and the afterlife. The characters are haunted by their own doppelgangers, hovering to remind them of their own bad decisions. There was nothing fussy or overworked, and the singing was allowed to weave over Glass’s ambient score. Sets, costumes, and direction all fit. Curtain call was enthusiastic, congratulatory, and well deserved on all fronts. Five more performances run until August 27, 2007, so you'd best get your opera-starved butts over there.
(above: Alice Busch Opera Theater, home to The Glimmerglass Opera)