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Orphée--A Love Story to Dismember Forever

On Valentine's Day when sappy love stories abound, the Dresser is processing the odd love story presented in Philip Glass' opera Orphée. On February 12, 2012, she saw Virginia Opera's impressive production of Orphée, the first of three operas in Glass' Cocteau trilogy. Costumes, sets, sound design, and projected titles for the Virginia Opera presentation came from the 2007 production by Glimmerglass Opera. Orphée was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the American Repertory Theater. It received its premiere in 1993.

The opera credits read "An opera in two acts by Philip Glass with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, adapted by Philip Glass and edited by Robert Brustein based on the film by Jean Cocteau. The libretto is in French. The libretto with two mentions of Glass and Cocteau doubles what goes on in the opera. Every main character has a non-singing twin. When all the silent doubles are on stage, the visual effect is like an Escher painting with robotic people defying the gravity of the situation.


The root story from Greek mythology is of course the poet-musician prophet Orpheus trying to bring back his beloved wife Eurydice from the Underworld. Cocteau's story puts the despised-by-the-avant-garde but popular poet Orphée (Matthew Worth) in the Paris salon of a wealthy woman known as La Princesse (Heather Buck). Orphée falls in love with this power broker of the arts while meanwhile Eurydice (Sara Jakubiak) announces she is pregnant. As the opera opens, the princess is hosting a party for Cégeste (Jonathan Blalock), a young upstart poet idolized by the intelligentsia. Drunk, Cégeste leaves the salon and is immediately hit and killed by passing motorcyclists. The audience sees the twin motorcyclists carry in Cégeste's body. Here the story turns and the doubling begins.

orphee_p13Princess.jpgIt seems that La Princesse is a grim reaper who conveys her targets through life's mirror to the other side. In death, there are two figures: the one looking into the mirror and the one looking back from the mirror. The Dresser likes how this surreal treatment by Cocteau echoes the structure of Glass' repetitive music. However, repetition is only in the orchestral line that serves as a foundation for the lyrical vocal score. What makes this opera, and other Glass operas such as Satyagraha, so moving is how Glass floats the vocal line above the insistent orchestral base. While the overall singing was richly satisfying, Heather Buck as the sexy but sophisticated La Princesse stood out for her ability to voice emotional depth and for her acting.

orphee_p16P-E.jpgParticularly strange is that La Princesse is put on trial in the Underworld for overstepping her bounds and taking Eurydice to the Underworld. Not only does Orphée love this Angel of Death more than his wife, but also La Princesse loves Orphée despite telling him that no one loves in the Underworld. So the judges condemn Orphée to return to his former life but he must not ever look at Eurydice though they will live together. One other complication of this story is that La Princesse has a chauffeur named Heurtebise (Jeffrey Lentz) who has fallen in love with Eurydice. He asks the court to lead the couple back to their lives to help with the transition. Sara Jakubiak makes for a most comic Eurydice as she drops to the floor and hides behind the household furniture to avoid Orphée's gaze. It doesn't work of course and in come the motorcyclists, who are La Princesse's henchmen, to take away Eurydice. However, Cocteau throws in one last reversal--La Princesse sacrifices her love for Orphée and so Orphée and Eurydice are given another chance with no memory of what has happened to them. They end as just a happy couple waiting for their first child.orphee_p19O-E.jpg

The Dresser thinks it would be worth spending some time savoring this libretto and seeing the Cocteau film by the same name. For example in La Princesse's salon, there is talk of her literary journal that has blank pages and that is labeled literary "nudism," something along the lines of the emperor having no clothes? In the Underworld courtroom, the judges while drinking coffee in unison ask Orphée what he does for a living. He says he is a poet and they say they don't know what a poet is. The explanation is that a poet is someone who writes without being a writer. To prove this, La Princesse later asks for a pen from him to sign court documents but Orphée doesn't have anything to write with.

To understand the emotional energy of this work, one should know that Glass wrote this intimate chamber opera after the sudden death of his wife, the artist Candy Jennings. It's also important to know that Glass studied composition with the famous Parisian grande dame of the 20th century music world Nadia Boulanger but struck out in his own direction. Glass' Orphée says a lot about sacrifices made for art, the immortality of art, and how love transcends death.

When Dora Malech writes in her "Love Poem" "you'll dismember this night forever," the Dresser knows exactly why this hip love poem speaks so loudly to the crazy surreal love in the Orpheus story that is Jean Cocteau ratcheted up by Philip Glass' emotionally spiraling repetitious music that allows for gorgeous vocal lyricism. So, Dear Reader, the idea is to get over the lunacy and enjoy the pop-goes-the-weasel surprises, including the cream filling. If Glass has a bright equation for Orphée and the other two operas in his Cocteau trilogy--and could some opera company as good as the Virginia Opera do them soon, the Dresser thinks his compositional strategy was all about the love he had for Candy. Now, that's some Valentine!


If by truth you mean hand then yes
I hold to be self-evident and hold you in the highest--
K.O. to my O.T. and bait to my switch, I crown
you one-trick pony to my one-horse town,
dub you my one-stop shopping, my space heater,
juke joint, tourist trap, my peep show, my meter reader,
you best batteries-not-included baring all or
nothing. Let me begin by saying if he hollers,
end with goes the weasel. In between,
cream filling. Get over it, meaning, the moon.
Tell me you'll dismember this night forever,
you my punch-drunking- bag, tar to my feather.
More than the sum of our private parts, we are some
peekaboo, some peak and valley, some
bright equation (if and then but, if er then uh).
My fruit bat, my gewgaw. You had me at no duh.

Dora Malech
from Say So

Copyright © 2011 Dora Malech

Photo Credit: David A. Beloff


Comments (1)

Roseanne Russo:

I saw Orphee on Friday night - we thoroughly enjoyed the performance and especially the voices of the 3 leads. Staging was extremely well done and worked perfectly. I absolutely loved the orchestration and their
performance despite the Washington Post's review.

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