Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: 'Orphée'

Virginia Opera
Steven Jarvi conducting
Feb. 17, Richmond CenterStage

People who dislike the music of Philip Glass (as I have, consistently, since the 1970s) should know three things about Glass’ “Orphée,” currently being staged by Virginia Opera:

(1) Unlike Glass’ best-known operas, “Einstein on the Beach” and “Satyagraha,” “Orphée” is not especially long. It clocks in at a fast-paced two hours.

(2) It is scored for traditional orchestral strings and winds, rather than Glass’ once-usual ensemble of electronic keyboards. The composer’s “repetitive structures” are passed unrepetitively among instruments with different tonal characteristics and timbres and more varied dynamics and articulation; and the score is liberally spiced with moody or atmospheric qualities. (Plus, in Act 1, a vivid orchestral echo of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”)

(3) It is sung by traditionally operatic voices; and while it has no free-standing arias, its vocal lines are no more angularly modernistic, let alone avant-garde, than those that one might encounter in Debussy or Poulenc.

Those aren’t random comparisons. “Orphée,” based on Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film adaptation of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, is sung in French, and in a vocal style that’s modeled on post-romantic French art-song and opera.

This production uses the scenery (by Andrew Lieberman) and costumes (by Kay Voyce) designed in 2007 for Glimmerglass Opera, and employs the stage director of the Glimmerglass production, Sam Helfrich. The set is sleek 1960s modern, with costumes of roughly similar vintage.

Stage movements are often a stylized “glide,” not unlike that of the ceremonial guards at Arlington National Cemetery – an overworked choreographic technique in modern and post-modern opera, but effective and appropriate here, as much of the story, whether set in this world or the underworld, unfolds in dream, or dreamily surreal, scenes.

The cast, from the principals – Matthew Worth (Orpheus), Sara Jakubiak (Eurydice), Heather Buck (the Princess) and Jeffrey Lentz (Heurtebise, the princess’ chauffeur) – to those singing the briefest supporting roles, is uniformly strong and gratifyingly nuanced in both voice and character.

Worth, the University of Richmond alumnus last seen and heard here in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” proves to be as commanding a presence and as idiomatic a voice in this very different work. Jakubiak and Buck are just as riveting, as both singers and actors.

Conductor Steven Jarvi draws colorful and dramatically charged playing from the orchestra, drawn from Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony.

In sum, this production is a winner. You can take that from one who’s usually Glass-averse.

The final performance of Virginia Opera’s “Orphée” begins at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $29-$111. Details: (866) 673-7282;