Glass' Orphée at Glimmerglass Opera.
Claudio Monteverdi, conducted by Antony Walker, directed by
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 25
Philip Glass, conducted by Anne Manson, directed by Sam Helfrich
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 27
High-concept productions flourish in the world of opera. Unlike
a musical theater piece, which typically is tested before
many audiences, an opera most often is unveiled on opening
night. This allows designers room for important innovations
that impatient audiences might discourage, but it also allows
designers to drown in a sea of self-indulgence. The latter
was the case with the Glimmerglass Opera’s attempt to present
Almost 400 years separate L’Orfeo and Glass’ Orphée,
and the always-compelling Orpheus myth was, not surprisingly,
imagined quite differently. Not surprisingly, Monteverdi’s
librettist, Alessandro Striggio, hewed closely to legend,
while the 1950 Jean Cocteau screenplay, upon which Glass’
opera is based, added a labyrinth of layer and reflection.
The imaginative stagings of these two dissimilar operas placed
each on a unit set so that the underworld became only a shift
of audience perception. For the Monteverdi, designer Paul
Steinberg came up with a stark, wood-paneled room with the
garishness of a gambling casino lodge. With five outsized
windows and no doors, entrances and exits became thumpingly
acrobatic, and the repositioning of a slew of sofas and chairs
signified location shifts.
Director Christopher Alden accomplished the formidable task
of completely divorcing the onstage action from the music,
despite the fact that the score was played with admirable
brio by a period instrument-enhanced ensemble under the direction
of Antony Walker. In fact, the only notable interaction between
the two came from the phallic intrusion of theorbo necks into
the stage picture, complementing the homoerotic undertones
of much of the proceedings.
The cast was variously costumed in outfits ranging from Elizabethan
dress to modern-day slacker; Orfeo (Michael Slattery) is discovered
in orange sunglasses and t-shirt. They looked like a group
of stoners badly attempting another Sgt. Pepper cover.
Orfeo himself, when he wasn’t jumping on sofas with other
shepherds, spent much of his time writhing like an ADD kid
with a bursting bladder. By the time he arrived to rescue
Euridice (Megan Monaghan), who was duct-taped to the upstage
wall, it was impossible to believe he really cared.
Monteverdi’s opera is a classic stand-and-sing piece. Long,
melisma-rich, heavily ornamented songs are punctuated by memorable
ritornelli and several beautiful sinfonia. Eschewing
all popular convention, Alden’s approach had them sit and
sing. Or writhe and sing. Or crawl slowly across the stage
and sing. It looked like a prolonged directorial tantrum.
Taking its story from a classic motion picture, Glass’ opera
faced the challenge of transforming Cocteau’s many locations
and effects into a theatrical event. Andrew Lieberman’s set
for the Glimmerglass production is (appropriate for a movie)
a wide-screen flat that would work well for a Noël Coward
play, except that many elements are subtly mirrored.
Mirrors are an important motif for the story. The realm of
the dead is accessed through mirrors; as Heurtebise, chauffeur
to the Princess of Death observes, “If you see your whole
life in a mirror, you will see death at work—as you see bees
behind the glass in a hive.”
Orphée (Philip Cutlip) is a famous poet whose photo, in a
James Dean-like pose, adorns an upstage wall. At a raucous
literary gathering (only in France!), the younger Cégeste
(Glenn Alamilla) is celebrated, along with his patroness,
La Princesse (Lisa Saffer). A fight erupts; Cégeste dashes
offstage and is killed by a pair of helmeted motorcyclists.
He is revived at the Princess’s villa, and recognizes her
as his death. He is now her slave, joining the enigmatic Heurtebise
(Jeffrey Lentz). But she has fallen love with Orphée and wishes
for him to pursue her—so she arranges to first to distract
the poet with otherworldly messages, and then to take Eurydice
(Caroline Worra) to her nether world.
It’s a high-concept conceit that resists a too-close examination,
but combining the Orpheus myth with the image of the poet
who romanticizes death is a fascinating concept that cries
out (appropriately for Orpheus) for music.
Glass’ score, ranging from the jazz-inflected rhythms of the
opening to a luscious, hypnotic sequence in the underworld,
sets the dialogue (which remains in French) fairly sparingly,
and punctuates it with his own ritornelli. These offered
staging opportunities that for the most part remained ignored,
once again underscoring the fact that this production, like
the Monteverdi, desperately needed a choreographer. But director
Sam Helfrich made excellent use of the mirroring concept by
doubling the principals at effective moments, especially in
After her success in last season’s The Greater Good,
it was a pleasure to see and hear Worra bring life to the
otherwise superficial Eurydice. Baritone Cutlip is new to
Glimmerglass but was a stunning presence as Orphée. No less
impressive were Lentz and Saffer as Heurtibise and La Princesse.
Although crowded with his trademark repetition, Glass’ music
had a cumulatively persuasive effect, excellently played by
the orchestra under the direction of Anne Manson.