The chauffeur and the poet journey to the underworld, and watch as Cégeste is questioned by a panel of judges. (Photo by David A. Beloff)
Orphee is essentially a musicalization (operatization?) of Jean Cocteau's 1949 film Orfee, an updating and interrogation of sorts of the Orpheus myth. Here, Orpheus' great love is not Euridyce, but death itself, as embodied in the mysterious character of the Princess. Death is in love with Orpheus as well, and sends Euridyce to Hades in order to be with him. Orpheus journeys there to retrieve her, but that fateful glance that dooms Euridyce to the underworld comes after she and Orpheus are back at home and forced to hide from each other in their small apartment. Rather than a moment of faithlessness, he looks at her and returns her to the underworld because "it was bound to happen sooner or later". Having finally gotten Orpheus back, however, the Princess sacrifices herself to ensure the poets immortality, sending him back to live out his life with Euridyce. (And if that doesn't make sense...well, you should probably just see it.)
While all of Glass' telltale markers are in place, this is a vastly different challenge than his recently heard Satyagraha. In the use of repeated figures to build tension and guide understanding of a complicated plot and the expert setting of dense, conversational text, one is inclined to think more of Poulenc. The dizzying first Act, which spins around the mystery of the Princess with disorienting clues and portents, burbles along with a jazz inflected sound reminiscent of the film's setting. Yet the real accomplishment is the second act, where Glass highlights the great tragic romance between Orpheus and the Princess/Death character in a series of compelling scenes.
VA Opera fielded a fine cast, particularly the rich Orphee of Matthew Worth, Sara Jakubiak's ringing Eurydice, and Jonathan Blalock's Cegeste. While I initially felt strongly that Heather Buck's Princesse sounded not-quite-right for Glass, she turned out to be perhaps the production's greatest asset, realizing the Princess' material with thrilling intensity. Jeffrey Lentz' served the part of Heurtebise well dramatically, but vocally did not quite match his colleagues in this music. Steven Jarfi conducted the score with great passion and momentum, never allowing the repetition to become static.
The whole thing is expertly staged by Sam Helfrich, who plays on the mirror motif (the passage between the living world and the underworld in the film) with supernumeraries playing "mirror images" of the principles engaging in an intricate choreography as the action shifts between spaces. A handsome modern apartment set replete with various "mirrored" spaces is skillfully lit to delineate different locations.
Much credit is due to VA Opera for making this production happen. While this would surely be a hot ticket in some locales, in Fairfax the company has been rewarded with a lot of empty seats and intermission snark. This is a piece that desperately deserves a broader audience and should be able to get one (nothing so intolerably transgressive about tonality and greek mythology is there?). But, as Charles Downey points out, its a piece of theatre that needs to be produced to be appreciated. Companies like this to take the plunge.
Update: Here's Anne Midgette's review.