Of the six Philip Glass operas I've seen live, 1993's Orphée
is the most conventional in structure, in part because Glass derived the story from Jean Cocteau's screenplay for his celebrated 1949 film. Most of Glass' other stage work, especially the legendary Einstein on the Beach
and other operas with director/genius Robert Wilson, have eschewed straight narrative for more abstract or suggestive parades of imagery. Glass's cyclical music mesmerizes in such settings, allowing audiences to slip from literal to metaphorical states of reception that can sometimes achieve immense emotional power, as happened even in recent works like Waiting for the Barbarians
Here, though, shackled to the necessity of telling an actual story, the opera falters where so many theater works, musical and otherwise, fail: exposition. Despite the brilliant set design (evoking the famous mirror effect in Cocteau's original but in a different way), the first act mostly lacked the magic of either Cocteau or Glass at his best. Nothing much really happens, Glass' static music (in spite of an almost ragtimey early sequence) treads water, and the whole set up of explaining the poetic rivalry, midlife marriage ennui, the poet's erotic attraction to Death (and vice versa) seems to take forever. “Life is long when you're dead,” one character sings, and compared to the dull reality of Orpheus' life (set in the beige living room of what might be a South Waterfront condo), a trip to Hell actually sounds like a pretty good idea--especially when Death (ravishingly played and sung by Lisa Saffer) is so attractive. For all the film soundtracks and theater music he's composed, Glass' music just isn't that suited to propelling a conventional narrative forward on stage. And the sense of disconnect isn't helped by the sluggish stage action and the capacious venue. From where I sat in the back row, Keller Auditorium's vast confines dwarfed the parlor setting and muffled the restrained score for chamber sized orchestra, well-conducted by Anne Manson. I wonder whether this production would have been better suited to the Newmark Theater, though economics probably wouldn't permit it.
All is forgiven in the magnificent second act, however, as the music and the characters' emotional temperature both heat up. Paradoxically, as Orpheus enters the land of the dead, the opera springs to life. The chemistry between Saffer and Philip Cutlip's Orpheus sizzles, a slapstick scene with Eurydice doing everything possible to avoid Orpheus's fatal glance provokes giggles, and the gorgeous love duet and final sequences deliver all the emotional kick that any fan of opera—or Orpheus
—could crave. Glass imbues the music with the kind of passion you'd expect from a composer who, like Cocteau's Orpheus
, was facing challenges from the next generation of the avant garde and who, like Orpheus had lost his beloved; Glass's wife, Candy, had died not long before he began work on Orphée
Maybe, with a tale as well known as Orpheus', the opera might better have jettisoned explaining Cocteau's alterations and machinations and left a bit of the evocative mystery that made Glass's operas with Wilson so powerful. Like Orpheus, we're better off if we don't look back, and forget the ho hum first act. But even half a L'Orphee
this compelling is better than yet another tired remake of overfamiliar 19th century fare, and Portland Opera deserves kudos for bringing it and its composer to town. Once it gets going, escapes mundane reality and crosses the mirror into the underworld, Orphee is one of the year's most fascinating musical spectacles.