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Les Enfants Terribles – Opera by Philip Glass

Opera Parallèle has demonstrated once again that it is at the forefront of opera innovation and risk taking in the Bay Area. Its production of Philip Glass’s adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s novella Les Enfants Terribles is a compelling, multidimensional piece, which sadly plays for one weekend and evaporates. A delightful hybrid of opera and ballet, Opera Parallèle adds yet another layer of artistry with the addition of film projected on three screens that enhances the storyline and opens up the otherwise spare staging.

The plot concerns Paul and Lise, socially and physically isolated opposite sex siblings, who share a bedroom. Their existence is largely defined by an implied erotic incest and by “the game” which is comprised of taunting each other until one gives in. When their mother, their remaining parent, dies, they reach a crossroads. Should they reach out for new relationships? Should they pursue work? Lise succeeds in finding a job as a model and marrying into money, but tragedies occur along the way. Ultimately, the pull of the siblings’ shared existence outweighs other considerations, and yearning for togetherness causes further tragedy.

The conceit that makes this opera special is that each sibling has a doppleganger, a look-alike ballet dancer. The dancers sometimes appear as shadows of the singers and sometimes alone to advance story themes or characters’ feelings. This duality adds depth to the characterizations and richness to the artistic performance.

Rachel Shutz, Hadleigh Adams. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

Glass is recognized as a minimalist composer, but he refers to his style as music with repetitive structures. This effect of recurring themes is particularly realized with the orchestration specified for the piece – three pianos. For this production, three noted pianists, Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Eva-Maria Zimmermann perform admirably. Compared to much contemporary classical music, Glass’s score possesses a mellifluous quality that is pleasant to the ear. Because of the composer’s use of a wide range of the pianos’ capabilities, we sense the presence of other instruments – such as imitations of cellos in the low registers and piccolos trilling in the high. Although the use of one type of instrument cannot compete with the textures of a full orchestra, three parts played on 264 piano keys can make for exciting listening.

Soprano Rachel Schutz and baritone Hadleigh Adams excel in the lead roles, with full voices and fine acting presence. Supporting roles are well played by Andres Ramirez as Gérard, the siblings’ only friend from their youth, and by Kindra Scharich in the dual roles of young antagonist Dargelos and later love interest Agathe. Conductor Nicole Paiement marshals the cast to a rewarding rendering of the work.

One objection of note in this production is that Andres Ramirez wears a head microphone that is activated when he acts as narrator and speaks in competition with the music. The purpose of micing the narrator portions is to balance the level of his singing and speaking voices, but the problem is that the mic is visible throughout his singing role and gives the appearance of breaching a revered protocol of opera.  A fashionable alternative would be to have a standing microphone in the style of the period of the opera for the narrator to move to when needed.  This device would also create desired separation in the two roles that Ramirez performs.

Director Brian Staufenbiel creates a physically-minimalist but media-rich staging. The extent of effort in setting up the staging can be appreciated by viewing the company’s time lapse video on its site. Although the performance venue is an attractive one, it is a recital hall, and the lighting grid for this production had to be built from scratch. The star of the staging however is Staufenbiel’s film which projects onto three screens on stage.

Amy Seiwert’s choreography provides an extra touch. The dance’s evocative character reflects the underlying sexual tension between the siblings. The movement is muscular and sinewy. The casting of the dancers and the wig and makeup design work perfectly to mimic the singers’ appearances.

One wonders why this piece doesn’t receive more play, especially by smaller opera houses across the country. Sung in French, the narration is spoken in English, and the storyline is easy to follow. With only nine performing artists, it carries great budget appeal. At a tight 85 minutes in length, perhaps it is considered too short as a stand alone piece and a little long to be performed with another one-act opera.

A weakness is that the libretto fails to generate adequate dramatic tension throughout. Insufficient attention is given to “the game” so that viewers don’t gain enough sense of either the animus or the passion between the siblings. When tragedies occur, they come and go so quickly that we don’t feel involved with the characters’ emotions. Fortunately, other aspects of the work and this production make it a worthy undertaking.

Les Enfants Terribles, a dance-opera composed by Philip Glass based on the novella by Jean Cocteau, is produced by Opera Parallèle and plays at San Francisco Conservatory Music, 50 Oak Street, San Francisco, through May 28, 2017.

 

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