Philip Glass secured his notable place in the history of 20th century opera with such epic works as "Einstein on the Beach" and "Satyagraha."
But the composer's stage works of more modest dimension would have been enough to earn him stature. "Orphee," from 1993, is a particularly striking example of his art.
The Mid-Atlantic area got a welcome, if long overdue, opportunity to experience "Orphee" last weekend in a visually classy, musically fulfilling production from Virgina Opera.
(Isn't it time a company in the composer's birthplace, Baltimore, embrace his operas? How about it, Peabody Opera? Lyric Opera Baltimore? Anybody?)
The fascinating nature of "Orphee" begins with its source -- the 1949 film of that name by Jean Cocteau, who retold the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld through a contemporary fable of a troubled poet. Glass took the original movie dialogue line for line and used that as the basis of his libretto for the opera, which is sung in French.
The story remains the same -- a mysterious Princess, really an agent of Death, makes dangerous choices after falling for Orphee, who is losing favor with the elite because his poetry has become too popular, and who starts to neglect his wife, Eurydice; the princess' chauffeur develops a crush on Eurydice; a radio conveys messages in a hypnotic code.
The most familiar aspect of the legend -- Eurydice being returned to the underworld when Orphee breaks the rule about looking at here -- is part of this tale as well, but with an optimistic twist.
The issues that Cocteau raised so stylishly in his film get fresh emphasis in the opera -- the creative impulse, the tension between popular and avant-garde art, love and fidelity, life and death.
Glass, writing in his most lyrical and even seductive vein, created a ...
fast-moving opera that grabs hold from the first jazzy flourishes from the orchestra. Throughout, the composer's distinctive thematic reiteration and rhythmic churning are employed to colorful, often keenly sensitive effect.
(In an instrumental passage from Act 1, Glass seems to give a nice little nod to the most famous opera involving Orpheus, the one by Gluck; a sweet flute solo recalls the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from that earlier classic.)
Virginia Opera, which has a long history of moving beyond the safe borders of the repertoire, embraced the challenges of "Orphee" with care and attention, as was evidenced Sunday afternoon at George Mason University's Center for the Arts in Fairfax.
The physical production originated with Glimmerglass Opera and was used in 2009 by Portland Opera (the latter's performance generated a fine recording from Orange Mountain Music). Designed by Andrew Lieberman, the single set is an attractively sleek, up-market residence bathed in beige.
Kay Voyce's costumes neatly capture the essence of everyone from the oh-so-casual bright young things to the menacing motorcyclists controlled by the fur-draped Princess.
Sam Helfrich directed the action with an appropriately cinematic flair, while ensuring that the human emotions inside this symbolic, surreal story emerged tellingly. He conveyed the shifting between this realm and the underworld in clever ways, using doubles for some of the characters.
Matthew Worth soared in the title role. His big, warm baritone filled out the music beautifully, with lots of nuance in the phrasing. There was a natural, conversational quality to his singing that helped make his acting all the more persuasive.
Sara Jakubiak was a vivid Eurydice. Her diction was not always clear, but the soprano's vibrant, deftly shaded tone proved most engaging.
As La Princesse, Heather Buck projected powerfully, if not with much color, and top notes turned strident. Still, she rose to the emotional peaks in Act 2 affectingly, making this curious character all the more sympathetic.
Jeffrey Lentz, as Heurtebise, the chauffeur, was a vocally slender presence, but he compensated with highly communicative phrasing. Jonathan Blalock also could have used more vocal heft. Still, he delivered a deftly drawn portrayal of the cocky, punk-poet Cegeste, whose new fame threatens to overshadow Orphee's.
The rest of the ensemble did colorful work, notably Christopher Temporelli as the head Judge in the Underworld.
Conductor Steven Jarvi shaped the score with admirable fluency and expressive detail. Members of the Virginia Symphony played as if Glass were a regular part of their musical diet, not only articulating the tricky patterns with clarity, but with great feeling as well. The orchestra gave the performance a beguiling sonic glow from start to finish.
PHOTOS BY DAVID A. BELOFF
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."