Arts Desk

Virginia Opera’s Orphée at George Mason Center for the Arts, Reviewed

Philip Glass’s vision of hell has Orpheus and Eurydice being grilled about their love life by judges holding tea cups. It looks a lot like marriage counseling.

This probably wasn’t the point Glass wanted to get across in Orphée, presented this weekend by the Virginia Opera at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. Glass wrote the 1993 opera as a tribute to his late wife Candy Jennings. But the story comes from Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, one of many adaptations of the Greek myth, along with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Marcel Camus’s Orfeu Negro, which placed the doomed pair in Rio during Carnaval. (Oh, and let’s not forget the Bible.) Cocteau’s script—slightly abridged but mostly unchanged—serves as the libretto. There are no arias, only dialogue in song form. Thus Orphée the opera feels less like an opera and more like a movie set to music.

This works well for the Virginia Opera, which puts on an enjoyably peculiar production. The last time the company swung through Fairfax, it bit off more than it could chew, with an underwhelming take on the larger-than-life Aida. Glass’ simple, two-act opera is better suited to the company’s strengths. The orchestration and staging are nice, nothing fancy—one might even say minimalist. But we know the shaggy-haired maestro hates that word, so we’ll go with Glass’ preferred term: “music with repetitive structures.”

The music is certainly repetitive, though not atonal and easier on the the ears than Glass’ earlier operas; think his film scores for The Illusionist and The Fog of War more than Einstein on the Beach. It cycles through four basic chords in a manner that is supposed to be meditative, I guess, but instead evokes a feeling of confusion. Which is appropriate for a story that is often confusing: What’s with the radio? Why is Death wearing a fur coat and camisole? How does a poet afford such a swank apartment?

That poet is Orphée, French for Orpheus, who lives with his wife Eurydice in what looks like a loft condominium they furnished with beige everything sometime in the 1970s. He’s hosting a poetry reading there when a younger poet, Cégeste, is hit by a motorcycle and dies, only to be brought back to life by his patron, “the Princess.” Orphée is a little freaked out but also becomes infatuated with the mystery woman, who turns out to be, surprise, Death herself. Death’s valet, Heurtebise, gives Orphée a radio. He listens to it obsessively to the neglect of his wife, until she dies in—you guessed it—a motorcycle hit-and-run. Orphée then has to follow Heurtebise into the underworld, where things start to get weird.

Orphée could be interpreted any number of ways, most obviously as an allegory for artistic immortality and artists’ willingness to sacrifice everything to achieve it. But it doesn’t come across as autobiographical. The mood is light enough to suggest that Glass and Cocteau are not blind to the sillier pretensions of the world they inhabit. In one early exchange, Orphée’s editor presents him with Princess’ arts journal: “The pages are blank.” “It’s called Nudism.” “That’s ridiculous.”

Director Sam Helfrich keeps things light, even trippy. Body doubles wander eerily across both sides of the stage, reflections in the mirrors that serve as portals between this life and the next. Indeed, baritone Matthew Worth, as Orphée, appears to be in a half-daze for much of the opera. But his stout voice, matched by soprano Heather Buck as Princess Death, does the music justice. Others leave something to be desired—soprano Sara Jakubiak’s Eurydice could be less shrill; tenor Jeffrey Lentz’s Heurtebise could try not to sound like he has peanut butter stuck in his mouth. Mezzo-soprano Marta Wryk is great in the supporting role of Eurydice’s friend Aglaonice.

Orphée isn’t like most operas, and many in the audience Friday didn’t seem to quite know what to make of it. It’s based on a movie, but why should that be strange? Most operas are, after all, adaptations of some older novel or play. It makes sense that modern opera would pull from a rich trove of 20th century film. What might be next? Just think of the straight-to-YouTube lip dubs and Rebecca Black music videos that will serve as our next generation’s operatic muses.

Orphée closes on Sunday, February 12 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. In French, with English surtitles. $48-$98. (888) 945-2468.

Photo by David A. Beloff

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