Friday, January 21, 2011

Opera 101—The Modern World and the Underworld

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to dip my toe into the pool of contemporary opera when I attended Ensemble Parallèle’s preview of their production of Philip Glass’s Orphée, which will be performed on February 26-27 at the Herbst Theater here in San Francisco. While postwar concert music is not really my thing, and my knowledge of Philip Glass is limited to my brother’s repeated playing of the Koyaanisqatsi* soundtrack in high school, I was intrigued by the Orphée part of the equation, as the Jean Cocteau film was one of the first I studied in graduate school.

The film itself is a modern, surrealist spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus, whose main claim to fame was travelling to the underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, killed on the day of their wedding. Orpheus persuades the gods through the power of his song to be allowed to bring his wife back from Hades, but only on the condition that he not look back at her until reaching the land of the living; however, like Lot’s wife, he fails to resist the temptation, losing her forever.

Cocteau updates the setting to postwar France, where Orpheus is a famous poet, hated by rivals, but adored by the public (only in France, people). In this version, Death falls in love with Orpheus, which complicates matters with his one true love just a bit. But how can one resist when Death is played by Maria Casares with steely determination and killer outfits? Although the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, the film remains extremely poetic, if a tad bizarre at times. I can totally see why it would appeal to a modern composer like Philip Glass, although I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he pretty much lifted the libretto straight from the film.

Surprisingly, I quite liked the music we heard and the singers, especially Eugene Brancoveau playing the lead, did an excellent job with it. This production is also adding a circus element to the depiction of the underworld, which I found to be a really interesting idea and totally in keeping with the spirit of the film. I particularly loved that the motorcyclist henchmen would be played by people in Roue Cyr. I was less convinced by some of the other design elements, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt based on what I saw.

As a side note, it was lovely to meet so many bloggers who have taught me so much about the San Francisco music scene these past months including SFMike (albeit briefly), The Opera Tattler, and Axel Feldheim, who I was thrilled to discover really isn’t a scary German. A big thank you to John Marcher for the invitation.

*As my New England town only had a 99-cent movie theater that played movies very late in their run, we would sometimes drive quite a ways to see something semi-interesting. However, these weren’t exactly “family nights” at the movies, since typically we all arrived together but then almost inevitably chose different theaters. The night my brother saw Koyaanisqatsi, my father and I saw the re-release of Rear Window, and my mother saw some Italian film, The Night of the Shooting Stars, maybe?

1 comment:

sfmike said...

Lovely to meet you briefly too. I just watched the Cocteau movie yesterday for the first time, at home, and it was a wonderful experience. Though Jean Marais, Cocteau's boyfriend, was a pretty crummy actor, everybody else was great, particularly that mean Maria Casares from "Les Enfants du Paradis." The cheap, imaginative special effects hold up beautifully, and the film has an hypnotic, dreamlike quality that is genuinely poetic.

I've been listening to a recording of the Philip Glass opera from a recent Portland production, and have decided it's one of my favorite scores of his. The bouncy, upbeat sound is unexpected, sounding more Nino Rota than "Satyagraha." I'd recommend trying to hunt down a copy of the recording, because the music is fun. What's really cheeky about Glass making an opera out of the screenplay is that the movie already has a beautiful musical score by the greatest French film composer of all time, Georges Auric, which sounds completely different.

Hope to see you again soon.