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Orange Mountain Music presents the world premiere recording of Philip Glass' opera Orphée, performed by a renowned cast of soloists including Philip Cutlip as Orphée, Lisa Saffer as la Princesse and the Portland Opera Orchestra conducted by Anne Manson. Written in 1993, Orphée was the first of a trilogy of operas that Glass composed on subjects by Jean Cocteau that includes La Belle et la Bête and Les Enfants Terribles. Orphée is the last to the trilogy to be recorded, and receives fine treatment here with a Michael Riesman produced recording made from a series of live performances that took place in November 2009. This two-disc set includes a deluxe digipack, full libretto in French and English, color production photos and cast and performer biographies. The storyline is based on Cocteau's fascinating retelling of the Orpheus myth - an extended parable on the life of an artist, a poet harassed and misunderstood by peers.
Top Customer Reviews
This is not his best opera (Einstein, AKHNATEN ...)
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Indeed, you might conclude that Glass's Orphee is an even greater work than Cocteau's Orpheus. Glass cuts away some nonessential material, giving greater emphasis to the relationship of Orphee and the Princess . . . which is at the heart of this story. Two scenes between Orphee and the Princess that pass quickly in the film are slowed, and transformed into rapturous love scenes that are highlights of the opera.
Philip Glass is sometimes accused of writing music that sounds too much like Philip Glass. Regardless of the merits of this charge elsewhere, it's meritless here. Glass employs jazzy touches in the cafe scenes, for example, and his musical characterization of the underworld is masterful. (Some of this music is reminiscent in effect of the Commmendatore's music in Don Giovanni, and Nick Shadow's music in The Rake's Progress.) The score, and the opera, move swiftly along, despite the sense of time-suspension. I'm not familiar with all of Philip Glass's substantial body of work, but I think his Violin Concerto is one of the best of the last 50 years (try the McDuffie/Eschenbach recording), and his cantata Itaipu (try the Gershon/LA Master Chorale recording) is a stunning masterwork, a minimalist Carmina Burana. Orphee is an achievement of equal stature. Glass is a great composer.
This recording is very well-done. The singers are all excellent, and it would seem unfair to single anyone out. The sound quality is excellent, though perhaps not quite state-of-the-art. The package includes a full libretto in French and English (it's sung in French, of course); oddly, there are two separate booklets, once for each act. There are full color photos of what must have been a very elegant production that in no way attempted to duplicate the visual style of the film.
Orphée is the first of Glass's trilogy based on works of Jean Cocteau in each of which he experimented with different relationships between film and opera. As the first in the series, Orphée is more film-like in that the singing is closest to spoken language, with the orchestral writing providing the melodic elements and most of the emotional setting. And this music is some of the most powerful and passionate that Glass has written.
That Glass should have begun his cinematic trilogy with Orphée is perhaps logical considering the operatic nature of the story, witness the many previous operatic settings. However, Cocteau greatly altered the sense of the Greek myth with the construction of two new and intersecting story lines: "Death" falling in love and Orpheus's egotism.
"Death" in the Cocteau-Glass work is a beautiful woman, called "The Princess," and she conforms in part to a standard operatic subject: the icy woman melted by love. Turandot and the Brünhilde of Siegfried come to mind, but in these operas they end up, at least temporarily, with the man whose love melts their ice. Orphée's Princess shares more with the Empress in the Strauss/Hofmannsthal opera "The Woman Without a Shadow". In finding human emotion the Empress learns to sacrifice for the happiness of others: the Dyer and his wife whose marriage she had selfishly threatened. But in sacrificing all the Empress gains all. The opposite is true for the Princess in Orphée. She sacrifices knowing with absolute certainty that she will lose all. She will be tried for meddling in human affairs and using her power to kill for her personal reasons. She will be imprisoned and subjected to torturous punishment. The music of her scene of relinquishment is the emotional core of the opera: searing music that leaves one breathless.
After this climax the concluding domestic scene with Orphée and Euridice seems mundane, but it is the appropriate climax to the second story line concerning Orphée's egotistical and inward-focused relation to his art. Glass treats this theme in two other operas, The Fall of the House of Usher, and the third of the Cocteau Trilogy, Les Enfents Terribles, arguing that art focused inward towards the psyche is incestuous and ultimately self-destructive. For Glass, art needs to deal with social issues. As evident in the final scene of Orphée, the reverse is also true: everyday life should be practiced with all the skill and integrity of art-making.
This final scene also represents a healing. Before this point, Orphée had chosen the Princess--Death--over life as represented by Euridice and their unborn child. He even engineers his own death to be with the Princess. Too weak to resist this self-destructive obsession, he would be lost without the strength and determination of the Princess to sacrifice their love for his welfare.
In general, note that all of Cocteau's satirical jabs are maintained in the opera, though not necessarily with satirical-sounding music. What produces the funniest scene is how Cocteau makes sense of the proscription against Orphée looking at Euridice after they return from the underworld. This is an example of "Let the punishment fit the crime" worthy of the Mikado. Orphée had refused to look at Euridice while she was dying, so he is condemned not to look at her at all. The ways she tries to avoid his gaze were extremely funny on stage and the music is jocular as well. On the other hand, the stage production, illustrated in photographs in the booklets accompanying the two disks, while a masterful solution to the idea of presenting multiple locations in a single set, does not indicate the surreal gloom of the underworld in which much of the action takes place, and which is masterfully portrayed in Glass' music. The buyer is advised to view the Cocteau film to make more sense of the musical atmosphere.
While the orchestra, conducting, and singing are all excellent, I do feel that it is worth complementing the outstanding performances by the two leading women: Lisa Saffer as the Princess and Georgia Jarman as Euridice. Sapper displays vocal mastery throughout, and the combination of determination and suffering she conveys in her climactic scene of sacrifice is riveting. Jarman's contribution to the tender dialogue with the Princess' chauffeur Heurtebise is a masterclass in modulated vocal dynamics. Perhaps because Jarman raised the bar so high, Ryan MacPherson as Heurtebise does his best singing in this haunting duet.