18 September 2010

CD REVIEW: Philip Glass – ORPHÉE (P. Cutlip, L. Saffer, R. MacPherson, G. Jarman, S. Brennfleck; OMM 0068)

Philip Glass - ORPHÉE (OMM 0068)

PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937): Orphée – P. Cutlip (Orphée), L. Saffer (la Princesse), R. MacPherson (Heurtebise), G. Jarman (Eurydice), S. Brennfleck (Cégeste), J. Beruan (Poet), K. Kvach (Judge), R. Brallier (le Commissaire), D. Freedman (Aglaonice), C. Halvorson (Reporter), J. Rubio (Policeman), M. Acito (Glazier), M. Hallak (Radio Announcer – spoken role); Portland Opera Orchestra; Anne Manson [recorded during live performances at Portland Opera, November 2009; Orange Mountain Music OMM 0068]

Since the birth of opera as it now exists, the myth of Orpheus has exerted a strong influence on the creative imaginations of composers, beginning with the ‘first generation’ works of Peri, Caccini, Rossi, and Monteverdi.  The figure of Orpheus, a man in whom the fate-altering powers of music and poetry are joined in perfect synthesis, has persisted as an alluring inspiration for composers, keen perhaps to depict through their work elements of their own plights as artists struggling against adversities, archaic social conventions, and stereotypes.  The darker aspects of the Orphic myth have often been downplayed or excised altogether, emphasis on the humanity of Orpheus masking to a great extent the less pleasant aspects of an ultimately errant character who literally met his end at the hands of the Ciconian women.  As with other of his important projects for the operatic stage, however, it is not strictly from Classical mythology or traditional sources that American composer Philip Glass drew his inspiration but from Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film Orphée, an allegorical examination of the ambiguous states of life and death as applied to the myth of Orpheus through the tattered perspectives of post-WWII France.  Adapting the French text used in the opera from Cocteau’s screenplay, Glass evokes the milieu of Cocteau’s film without threatening to create merely a musical accompaniment for the film, after the manner of the music once performed in cinemas during silent films.

Though this recording was made during performances at Portland Opera in November 2009, the opera is not new.  Orphée was composed during 1991, when Glass was mourning the sudden death of his wife, and first performed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1993.  Musically, the hallmarks of Glass’s personal style of composition are all present, principally the ‘minimalist’ device of constructing extended phrases with small, repetitive, ostinato-like musical units.  Whereas this approach has arguably lessened the impact of some of Glass’s vocal music, in Orphée the otherworldly, ritualistic progress of the drama is credibly, even movingly shaped by the ways in which Glass applies his craft to the text.  Though presented in the context of Cocteau’s conception of the story rather than Classical sources, the most influential of which is Pindar, Glass’s account of the Orphic myth compellingly traces the basic course of the Greek tragedy.  In the opening scene, Glass convincingly conjures the atmosphere of a mid-century Parisian café, the chanson and jazz scenes of post-war Montmartre suggested without being directly imitated.  Thereafter, musical figurations propel the drama along its bizarre but inexorable course, scenes transitioning organically and comfortably.  An unfortunate trend among operas composed in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First centuries is the failure for music to truly work in tandem with text to create works that coherently depict in sound the paths from beginning to end: in short, many recent operas are filled with music that merely accompanies rather than embodying the text and that never creates the kind of sound and fury necessary to draw an audience into an operatic journey in the tradition of Verdi and Wagner.  Glass does not wholly overcome this trend in Orphée, but he is more successful than in several of his other operas at giving distinct musical profiles to characters who, even when they essentially are faceless archetypes, inspire attention and interest.  If Glass has not created in this score a work of timeless beauty like Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Orphée is nonetheless a deeply personal work, one in which Glass’s individual compositional style is heard at its most accessible.  Far more than many of the operas composed during the past two decades, it is a piece deserving of revival; and likewise one that fares rather better than most of Glass’s vocal works in the audio-only format of a compact disc recording.

Recorded by Orange Mountain Music in superb sound that preserves very few distracting stage noises (the roaring motorcycle engines might ideally have been less damaging to the cochlear ducts, or—even better—evoked musically rather than literally) and contributions from the audience, this production by Portland Opera offers an excellent introduction to Glass’s opera.  The Portland Opera Orchestra play with polish and vigor under the baton of Anne Manson, an undervalued conductor who was the first woman to conduct at the Salzburger Festspiele.  The music of Philip Glass presents great challenges for a conductor in that it is largely reliant upon the conductor’s leadership for propulsion and dramatic thrust.  Maestro Manson obviously possesses an imperturbable knowledge of her musical destination, and she presides over a performance that progresses more or less coherently from the surrealistic beginning to the not-quite-cathartic end.  She understands that this is Cocteau’s and Glass’s Orpheus rather than Monteverdi’s or Gluck’s, and she is careful to avoid any suggestion of parody.  [It is worth noting that Cocteau’s film included in its soundtrack much music taken from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.]  Maestro Manson also proves successful in this performance by approaching the opera as a straightforward musical course to be followed in a traditional, music-centered manner rather than as a ‘contemporary masterpiece’ in need of conductorial espousal and idiosyncratic endorsement.  In short, Maestro Manson displays an understanding of the necessity of presenting a performance rather than an ‘event.’  She focuses on rather than fussing over the music and allows Glass’s opera to unfold on its own terms, the musical values realized at the highest possible levels, and to say what it has to say in its own voice.

In opera, as one hopes that Mr. Glass would agree, the singing is the thing, however, and vocally this performance is built on very firm ground.  Comprised almost exclusively of young American singers, the cast is strong even in secondary roles.  Impressive in smaller roles are tenors Marc Acito as Glazier and Carl Halvorson as a Reporter; baritone José Rubio as a Policeman; and basses Jeffrey G. Beruan as a Poet, Ron Brallier as le Commissaire, and Konstantin Kvach as a Judge.  Aglaonice, Eurydice’s friend, receives a winning performance from mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman.  Eurydice herself, less significant in Cocteau’s and Glass’s version of the myth than in Classical sources and in Gluck’s opera (or, to be sure, in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers!), is beguilingly sung by Georgia Jarman, a young soprano of great promise whose many fine performances at the Caramoor Festival include an uncommonly effective portrayal of Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore opposite the Nemorino of Lawrence Brownlee.  Given by Glass less musical material with which to work than in the bel canto roles for which she is most appreciated, Ms. Jarman nonetheless offers through tonal beauty and good diction a touching Eurydice.  French diction is generally good throughout the cast, in fact; an impressive—and rare—achievement in a cast of young, English-speaking singers.

The unconventional ‘villains’ of Glass’s opera are the Princesse, a patroness of the arts, and her chauffeur Heurtebise, shadowy figures both.  Sung by renowned soprano Lisa Saffer, who brings to her performance the same intensity familiar from her performances of Händel roles, the Princesse is a character of uncertain motivation: consigned in the opera’s final moments to a fate at least superficially not unlike Don Giovanni’s for what she has proclaimed to be a sort of sacrifice for art, though she has been said to be the personification of Death, one is left to wonder whether she has been in love with a man, his art, her influence over his creativity, or coldly philosophical manifestations thereof.  Using her vibrant tone to inflect the text wittily and, when appropriate, touchingly, Ms. Saffer makes the Princesse both attractive and repulsive: like Orpheus, the listener is suspicious and even openly fearful of her strange machinations but nonetheless drawn to witness and participate in them.  The Princesse herself aptly defines this ambiguity when responding to Orphée, who has said, ‘Et on me déteste’ (‘They hate me’), by saying, ‘C’est une des formes de l’amour’ (‘It’s one form of love’).  This duality is inherent in Ms. Saffer’s performance, all the more convincingly conveyed by the cool radiance of her voice.  Heurtebise, her would-be Leporello, is sung by tenor Ryan MacPherson, an engaging young artist.  Fittingly, two roles for which Mr. MacPherson has been especially acclaimed are Peter Quint in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and the Stimme des Jünglings in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, vaguely ethereal parts that are not unlike Heurtebise.  Aside from his unrequited love for Eurydice and a presumed but far-from-certain loyalty to the Princess, Heurtebise’s reasons for his actions in Glass’s opera are even less apparent than those for the Princesse’s conniving.  What is not left to uncertainty is the quality of Mr. MacPherson’s performance, which combines dramatic intelligence with vocal skill and finesse.

The man about whom the drama of Glass’s opera is twisted, Orphée, is sung by baritone Philip Cutlip, one of the best among America’s generation of talented young singers.  Departing from the traditional depiction of Orpheus as a semi-deity among men (or, allegorically, an artist among boorish laymen), Glass’s Orphée is a significantly more earthbound character, a complicated figure of poetry, jealousy, insecurity, and latent violence.  If there is one principal way in which Orphée fails as an opera in the traditional sense it is the title character’s inability to earn genuine sympathy from his audience.  Mr. Cutlip nonetheless contributes a performance that breathes life into every nuance of Orphée’s character, positive and negative.  There is poetic yearning audible in Mr. Cutlip’s strong, attractive timbre, but the confusion of the husband and prospective father who is in love with a woman who is not is wife is also vividly depicted in Mr. Cutlip’s performance.  Mr. Cutlip is to be praised for believably portraying Orphée’s conflicting emotions without allowing the focus of his voice to be distorted or lost.  Even in a role that lacks the vocal opportunities of more conventional baritone roles, Mr. Cutlip offers a performance that is fully worthy of one of America’s finest young singers.

Vocally, though, it is tenor Steven Brennfleck as Cégeste, a younger rival poet, who impresses most with an arresting performance marked by especially beautiful singing encompassing a wide spectrum of vocal colors.  Envious of the celebration of Cégeste and his work by the populace in the first scene, Orphée is not complicit but is far from heartbroken by his young competitor’s death soon thereafter.  Mysteriously returned to life by the Princesse, Cégeste’s role in the drama is as shrouded in uncertainty as any other aspect of the opera, but in his every appearance Mr. Brennflect reveals a pliant, bright but warm-hued, and beautiful voice that can easily be imagined confronting and conquering the difficulties of Gluck’s Orphée.  Dramatic bewilderment is achieved through textural clarity rather than resorting to vocal histrionics.  It is obvious in this performance that Cégeste’s poetry, though perhaps shaped by the angst of youth, is purer than the rougher, sharper verse of the struggling, disillusioned Orphée.  Mr. Brennfleck’s performance is memorable even in an opera in which he is given nothing truly memorable to sing and is a welcome document of the work of a young tenor of extraordinary promise.

For all its inherent cycles of discovery and rediscovery, opera is in many aspects an unchanging art.  Just as was the case when Bizet’s Carmen premièred to vociferous but far-from-unanimous critical dismissal in 1875, Philip Glass’s Orphée is subject to the whims and personal opinions of audiences, critics, and musicians who either will like it or will not.  It is almost certain that, a century on, Orphée will not enjoy a place in the mainstream international operatic repertory alongside Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, a seminal work in the development of opera as it presently exists and an opera of considerable power and beauty, remains by its nature essentially a ‘specialist’ work, after all, and will continue to survive only on the fringes of the repertory.  It is not difficult to speculate that Orphée will remain Glass’ most approachable opera, however.  It is unfortunate that striving, whether intentionally or subconsciously, in the general direction of tradition is a reason for scorn and dismissal in avant garde artistic communities, by which reaching for conventional—which, in music, might also be termed universal—values is regarded as something akin to treason.  Glass has achieved in Orphée a sense of personal depth and involvement that surpasses the instances of these qualities in his other operas, and he has done so while largely maintaining his personal musical voice.  A work that appeals to populist emotional engagement is surely no more criminal than one that aims for coldly progressive genius and misses the mark.  Even if one does not quite fathom its overall meaning (having seen Cocteau’s film is of little assistance in this regard), a performance as uniformly excellent as this persuades the listener that Philip Glass, like Monteverdi and Gluck before him, has the eloquent essence of Orpheus’ musical and poetic art at the core of his creative process.

Orpheus charming wild beasts by playing his lyre, from an Imperial Roman mosaic