GLASS Orphée • Anne Manson, cond; Philip Cutlip (Orphée); Lisa Saffer (Princess); Ryan MacPherson (Heurtebise); Georgia Jarman (Eurydice); Steven Brennfleck (Cégeste); Jeffrey G. Beruan (Poet); Konstantin Kvach Read more class="ARIAL12i">(Judge); Ron Brailler (Commissaire); Daryl Freedman (Aglaonice); Carl Halvorson (Reporter); José Rubio (Policeman); Marc Acito (Glazier); Mikhail Hallak (Radio Announcer); Portland Op O • ORANGE MOUNTAIN 0068 (2 CDs: 101:48 Text and Translation) Live: Portland 11/2009
Back in 2005 I let the British premiere of Glass’s Orphée slip past me. I remember not being in the mood for a challenging, clever-clever epic of sustained rhythms and complex allegory. Ignoring that it took 12 years after its U.S. premiere for Orphée to reach London, I find there tends to be a lot of Glass played here, not all of it worth the journey, for like his teacher, Milhaud, Glass is blessed (or cursed) with a prolificacy bordering on the casual, resulting in varying consistency. They make an interesting comparison; both Milhaud and Glass found popular success, despite their avant-garde tags; both have an unpretentious attitude to writing film scores (although their individual approaches are very different); and both are impossible to pin down to one style or influence. With Glass’s Jean Cocteau trilogy (of which Orphée is the first) yet another link with Les Six is forged. I assumed Glass’s clinical style might jar with Cocteau’s emotional storytelling, but that is just my loss for second-guessing a Philip Glass stage work and missing it in the theater; this lively first recording of Orphée is an insistent reminder of how stupid I was.
The libretto is taken virtually wholesale from Cocteau’s 1949 film of the same name, a surreal contemporary retelling of the Orpheus legend, in which Orphée, a poet, watches his younger, more successful rival get fatally run down by two motorcycles, instruments of Death, who appears throughout as the Princess. Orphée’s attraction to the Princess and subsequent neglect of his wife, Euridice (who is also killed by the motorcycles), lead him on a journey to the underworld, to confront personal and artistic demons. Both the film and this opera are infinitely complex metaphysical tales of thwarted artistry and dreamlike realization, taking place in an everyday, modern setting, fitting Glass’s multilayered Modernism, even better than Georges Auric’s romantic score for the film. What really is surprising, though, is Glass’s newfound warmth, even humor. The opening café scene, for instance, would make Milhaud proud in its jaunty bonhomie and it sets up the tragedy of Cégeste’s sudden death perfectly. Glass throws a barrage of effects into the scoring; motorcycle engines, radio announcements, even Morse code are all used to startling effect, woven into his usual repeated rhythms and motifs. (Do I also detect, in the end of act I, the descending brass theme from a later scene of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, when his crazed protagonist barely acknowledges the girl he loves?)
Orphée has that pulsating momentum of a classic Glass score, but with more lyricism, and, along with the work’s relative brevity (it is shorter than the film), this is why I sensed the cast being much more emotionally involved than one hears with Glass’s more cerebral works. He is certainly well served by Portland’s forces. Lisa Saffer, with her bright, flinty voice, is an obvious choice for the alluring, enigmatic Princess. Georgia Jarman is a limpid-toned Euridice, and Steven Brennfleck’s light tenor is ideal for the young poet-in-town, Cégeste. Philip Cutlip’s warm, slightly gravelly baritone cleverly suggests Orphée’s doubt and world-weariness, as well as his self-discovery.
The unsettlingly calm ending sees Orphée at home with his pregnant wife, seemingly unaware of what has gone on, although with a newfound self-awareness of his own reputation and his love for Euridice, allowing Glass to gradually wind down his motifs and rhythmic patterns into a finale of domestic simplicity and beauty. Like the singers, Anne Manson seems to have taken the score to her heart, coaxing warm and passionate playing out of the orchestra. This is certainly not a performance held at arm’s length.
It is, by far and away, one of Glass’s finest scores, tautly paced, accessible, and not without humor, so I find it preposterous that it has taken 17 years for it to get its first official recording. Although I am very happy with Portland Opera’s work, I do still hope this is not the only version we will get. Certainly the booklet photos make the possibility of a DVD release look tempting, and it would be telling to see what a native French cast could do with the elegantly set text, as there is some woolly pronunciation here and there. The live recording is suitably bright and close, giving the orchestra prominence over the singers, and capable of spotlighting Glass’s myriad overlapping rhythms and effects. Some audience laughter is heard, but there is, miraculously, virtually no stage noise, making me think there has been some clever patching from multiple performances. An essay about the work would have been nice, but otherwise no complaints with the digipack’s lavish contents. A must buy.