Portland Opera’s Orphée intriguing and convincing

Photo credit: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

Photo credit: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver

It has been a pretty heady week for Portland Opera. The company took a gamble in producing Philip Glass’s Orphée on Friday evening (November 6) at Keller Auditorium and emerged a winner. This rarely heard opera retells the Orpheus legend according to the vision of Jean Cocteau, and it held a near-capacity audience spellbound.

On top of all the commotion that surrounded this production, Philip Glass stopped in town to take a look at how the rehearsals for his Orphée were going and quickly decided that the opera should be recorded by Orange Mountain Music for a CD that will be released to the public in the spring of next year. This recording will be the first ever for Portland Opera, and it will also be the first for this opera.

The orchestral music is harmonic with some dissonance used to accent conflict and to give a sense of no real resolution at the end of the story. Certain patterns of sound and rhythm subtly add to the context of the story. The principals sang no memorable arias, but what they sang was more like a recitative. Because of the repetitive patterns of music in the orchestra, the singers could easily get lost, but conductor Anne Manson was always spot on and would flick her left hand to cue the singers at just the right time.

Set in a chic living room that could pass for one of the condos in the Pearl, the story concerns a famous poet Orphée who is no longer popular. People are now enthralled by the poetry of his rival, Cégeste, who is only 18 years old. Cegeste, however, dies and is escorted by The Princess through a mirror to the underworld. Orphée follows but returns to the real world with a radio through which he hears poetic messages meant only for him. The story gets more complicated because Orphée becomes obsessed with the messages from the radio, and this displeases his wife, Eurydice, greatly. In the meantime, she falls in love with Heutebise, the Princess’s chauffeur, and Orphée falls for The Princess. Then Eurydice dies, and Orphée travels to the Underworld to find her.

Although the opera has a serious tone, it also has humor sprinkled here and there. For example, Orphée leafs through a book of poetry, but each page is blank. One of his colleagues explains that this kind of poetry is called Nudism.

All of the acting and singing in this performance was top-notch. Philip Cutlip created a conflicted Orphée who could be passionate one moment and distant and obsessed the next. Lisa Saffer brought to the role of La Princesse a palpable sense of someone who is emotionally constrained by a weird set of rules. Looking cool and haughty, Saffer could smoke a cigarette and still sing gorgeously. Georgia Jarman as the attention-starved Eurydice was superb. Ryan MacPherson cut a sharp, almost double-agent look, as Heurtebise.

Before his character died, Steven Brennfleck’s Cégeste careened about the party scene wildly. Aglaonice, the pregnant and opinionated friend of Eurydice, was conveyed with a sense of urgency by Daryl Freedman. Kvach created a decisive but not overbearing judge in the Underworld.

Even lesser roles were finely honed. Jeffrey G. Beruan conveyed a brutally honest Poet. Carl Halvorson’s Reporter quickly revealed his nervous frustration. Marc Acito’s Glazier sang and moved across the stage with a wink in his eye.

Stage Director Sam Helfrich showed all sorts of inventive ways to tell this story through the characters. The Princess in the ordinary world moved in straight lines and turned corners sharply as if she were guided by something else. The doubling of actors created the real and unreal effect of looking at a mirror. I loved the comic timing of Eurydice as she barely avoided the gaze of Orphée after they return from the Underworld. Also intriguing was the zombie-like movement of the characters when they went to the Underworld.

This production by Portland Opera used the scenery and costumes that were originally created for the Glimmerglass Opera production in 2007. The projected English subtitles were written and produced by Kelley Rourke for Glimmerglass Opera. (FYI: Rourke, is also the editor of Opera America magazine.)

One of the intriguing things about Orphée, is that it raises questions about what happens to us when we die, what happens to us when we become obsessed with something, what is art and love all about anyway.

There are two more performances of Orphée (November 12 and 14) and I highly recommend them to you.

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