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Persuasive: Glass' Orphée at Glimmerglass Opera.

Auteurists

By B.A. Nilsson

L’Orfeo

By Claudio Monteverdi, conducted by Antony Walker, directed by Christopher Alden

Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 25

Orphée

By 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 Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

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 the underworld.

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.

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