CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — THE legend of Orpheus, son of the poetic muse Calliope and the god of music Apollo, is one of the most enduring in Greek mythology. A brilliant musician whose music so charmed Hades that he was allowed to lead his dead wife, Eurydice, back into the land of the living, Orpheus represents the divine power of art.
The fact that Orpheus looked back to make sure Eurydice was following, thereby disregarding Hades' provision and banishing his wife back to the underworld, makes him all the more human and intriguing. Orpheus has come to be viewed as a tragic figure who personifies the artist as a link between the corporeal and spiritual worlds. His tale has inspired countless works of art.
Philip Glass is the latest composer to dramatize the Orpheus legend with a new opera that debuted last week at the American Repertory Theatre (ART). "Orphee" is based on Jean Cocteau's retelling of the myth in his 1949 film of the same name. The film is an allegory on the life of the misunderstood artist, a poet who derives inspiration from a fascination with death.
Glass's opera uses the Cocteau screenplay for a scenario, and therein lie both the strengths and weaknesses of this new work. As adapted by Glass and edited by ART Artistic Director Robert Brustein, the libretto is accessible, clever, and entertaining. But it is also convoluted and so elliptical that the audience is never made to fully understand or appreciate the artistic or charismatic power of the main character.
Director Francesca Zambello's staging is both stylish and naturalistic, allowing for contrasts between Orphs routine life at home and in the Paris cafes, and his visits to the netherworld to search for his poetic muse. Yet Orphs passion for art, his abiding love for his wife, and his fatal attraction to the Princess (a seductive agent of Death) are more alluded to than portrayed. We never relate to him, nor do we really care. This "Orphee" seems a bit hollow at the core.
Glass has written his most accessible music in years for "Orphee." As expected, recitatives and arias are scrapped in favor of sung dialogue (performed in French with English supertitles.) Much of the dialogue is pragmatic rather than poetic, but there are some longer, more melodic sections that soar with an unexpected lyricism. Beneath it all churns Glass's trademark propulsive rhythms - quickly alternating chords, a constant run of arpeggios, small motivic figures tenaciously repeated.
However, these characteristic musical formulas are put to the service of a rather broad stylistic palette. The opening cafe scene percolates with the energy and syncopations of ragtime. There is a bit of ersatz Americana, a hint of boogie-woogie, some polytonal, circus-y oom pah pahs.
The 12-piece orchestra, led by a rock-solid Martin Goldray, includes synthesizer and percussion (such as chimes, maracas, and woodblocks) that add color. Musical sections are short, varied, and with an overall arching structure that is something of a departure for a Glass opera. What the music lacks in the pristine rigor of earlier works, such as "Einstein on the Beach," it makes up for in variety.
The cast for "Orphee" is first rate, though all were understated dramatically. The press opening on May 19 featured Eugene Perry in the title role (to alternate with Leroy Villanueva). Though the character is a bit of a cipher, Perry's dramatic skills kept Orphee believable. Vocally, Perry's rich baritone was articulate and expressive. Elizabeth Futral was an affecting Eurydice.
The most challenging role vocally belonged to Wendy Hill as the Princess. Though she stalked the earthly realms with icy calculation, her voice was capable of throbbing with warmth and passion. She navigated the most chromatic writing of the opera with assurance, though there was a bit of shrillness in her tone.
The most moving role was that of Heurtebise, the Princess's chauffeur and reluctant assistant, beautifully portrayed by Richard Fracker with his splendidly expressive tenor. The excellent supporting cast included Paul Kirby as Cegeste and Janice Felty as Aglaonice.
The overall look of "Orphee" is a stunning surrealistic tableau of cream and black by designer Robert Israel.
* "Orphee" ends July 10.