Saturday, February 11, 2012

Orphee at Virginia Opera

The chauffeur and the poet journey to the underworld, and watch as C├ęgeste is questioned by a panel of judges. (Photo by David A. Beloff)
Listen up DMV people who have bemoaned the less-than-imaginative WNO season this year--the Virginia Opera deserves some love. For just one more show Sunday afternoon, they are offering a very worthwhile production of Phillip Glass' captivating 1993 opera Orphee (originally from Glimmerglass) that may very well be the finest example of 20th century opera one is going to see in the region this season.
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.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Gotterdammerung: Washing the Bearskin

First the pleasant section about what was a solid if not extraordinary reading of Gotterdamerung last Friday's premiere offered, falling slightly above par for the cycle on the whole.

This is certainly Deborah Voigt's most successful Brunnhilde of the three, with a sound delightfully rich and comfortable after those effortful Walkure and Siegfried B-hilds. The end of the Dawn Duet included a rockin' final C, Act II was an impressive feat of stamina and the Immolation, if stopping short of ecstatic territory, was powerfully sung and a great improvement vocally over most of the other Brunnhildes in the Met rolodex.

This was my first time seeing JHM live after his dreamy turn in that Siegfried HD-cast in the fall. The volume issues, even with Luisi's singer friendly playing, are certainly a challenge live, and the depth of his charm on the screen is a bit lost at 500 yards. Still, his commitment to finding the beauty in Siegfried's music is always in evidence, and notorious tenor killing passages came off with great sensitivity. As hoped, his death scene was finely sung and quite moving.

But the overall strength of this Gotterdammerung owes at least as much to its supporting cast as its principles. The Hagen of Hans Peter Konig was the biggest sound happening on stage by some margin and a constant source of musical excitement. Other highlights included Iain Paterson's harrowing portrait of a Gunther consumed by his fears and guilt, a robust Norn crew led by Elisabeth Bishop, and of course the twin juggernauts of Waltraud Meier's Waltraute and Eric Owens' Alberich.

Luisi's way with Wagner, such a revelation in Siegfried, was less distinctive here, but very rewarding nonetheless. The boundless energy and lithe movement of the score in Luisi's hands is ever intriguing if a bit inert in those moments where ultimate grandeur is called for.

* * *

And now the less pleasant section.

Oh, LePage Ring cycle. I don't know if I have the energy anymore. The Gotterdammerung production had more to recommend it than the Rheingold or Walkure (I'd call it a toss-up with the Siegfried, though my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt since I only saw it in broadcast), but the fatal flaws of the enterprise are still very much in evidence. The LePage Ring remains a prototype physical concept in search of a story, and the audience's experience of the Ring, despite substantial musical achievement, is the poorer for it.

So what worked? The two large group scenes (the vassals in Act II and hunting party in Act III) were staged traditionally but very effectively--for long stretches we got minimal funny-business from the Machine, allowing those scenes to unfold without distraction. Several touches, like Siegfried's pitiful attempt to take another shot at Hagen after he's been stabbed in the back, were particularly inspired. Gotterdammerung lacked any image as striking as those snowy trees from Walkure or the forest wall from Siegfried, but points for the Act III forest scene with its huge waterfall (nice to see what the Rhinemaidens are swimming in for once) and the Gibichung throne room.

This last image, a huge golden disc pattern, seemed, along with a few of the transition projections, to indicate a more abstract, perhaps even psychedelic, direction for this installment, which would have been a welcome liberation from the literal-minded drudgery of the previous shows. But alas, the golden disc thing turned out to be a lame tree ring (cuz like, wood burns and that's why the Gibichung palace goes up in flames, got it?) and the trippy transition sequences were used sparingly and never developed.

So, on that note, here is the now standard selection of offenses against stagecraft for this final Ring installment, by category:

1. Make-work for the machine award: For the Norn weaving of fate sequence, we basically have the Machine serving as a giant cat's cradle. This is one of those situations where one could make thoughtful suggestions about how maybe it looks like a giant loom, or, isn't it clever that the spinning planks cut off the different ropes--but they all miss the point, which is that this "idea" only serves to draw attention to the ugly, bizarre, dramatically inert object dominating the stage and distract from the actual drama.

2. Putting cast members in harm's way: In Act III scene I, the Rhinemaidens continuously clamber up that waterfall projection mentioned above and then slide down under the lip of the planks in the front of the stage. Here again we have the production mistaking actors doing something nervewrackingly dangerous onstage for an actual stage illusion. Every time one of them slid down the thing (and no, a waterfall projection does not a complete illusion make when accompanied by the sound of butts skidding on fiberglass) the audience collectively gasped about whether she would smack her head on the front planks.

3. Upstaging the opera with unnecessary set pieces: And of course, the LePage Ring has often indulged in using the set to stage trivial moments that confuse the balance of the drama. Here LePage zeroed in on the several pages around Siegfried's arrival at the Gibichung castle. Yes, the dialogue there seems to exist solely to fudge the fact that its really hard to stage people in the interior of a house and someone arriving on a riverbank simultaneously, but its also a trivial part of the script. LePage uses the opportunitity to show the machine clumsily "doing" a river, and Hagen ends up stupidly narrating his arrival to the rest of the Gibichungs who can see it with their own eyes.

But surely the least forgiveable offense is the deeply unimaginative and clunky staging of the opera's climax. I won't go into too much detail, as it has been excoriated in other outlets already, but for this production to so baldly phone in a moment both heavily anticipated for years now, not to mention its greatest chance for redemption, is all the proof one needs that no one is really invested in this failure any longer.