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Earlier this year, I was invited to a preview of Ensemble Parallèle’s production of Orphée by Philip Glass. Far from familiar with postwar concert music or contemporary opera, I was wary at best. However, with the inspiration and libretto being taken directly from the film by Jean Cocteau, my love of French cinema soon won out. The presentation was impressive and, although I had my doubts about some of the design elements, I looked forward to the production.

La Princesse (Death) and Orphée.
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

I was not disappointed. Much to my surprise, I liked the music (and I’m sure the young Philip Glass fan that was my brother in high school would be shocked to hear me say that). Additionally, the singing was outstanding. I had heard a sample last month, but the full cast was really impressive, especially Marnie Breckenridge as La Princesse and Eugene Brancoveanu as Orphée. If you’ve been reading this blog since I started it in September, you know that I only recently began exploring the world of opera with my first subscription to the SFO. I don’t claim to know much about opera singing, but my partner in crime and all things opera, the Maratonista Minimalista, agreed that we didn’t think anything we saw this past fall had such consistently strong singing by all the leads (although some of the French diction could have been improved).

As for the production, while the film Orphée is already a modern, surrealist spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus (who travels to the underworld to rescue his bride), this staging went a bit further by adding a circus element to the depiction of the underworld—harkening back to another French director, Marcel Camus, who set his Orpheus, Orfeu Negro, during Brazil’s Carnaval. This concept ended up working very well and really elevated the second act above some of the sillier surrealist elements of the first. I particularly enjoyed watching the silk aerialist (and, of course, sfmike, who performed admirably as a circus henchman throughout). I would have loved if they had also used the Roue Cyr onstage during the deaths of the first act, although I imagine it may have been too dangerous to do that.

It’s really a shame there are only two performances of this thoroughly enjoyable show. If you can make it to today’s performance at 2:00 pm at the Herbst Theater, I encourage you to do so. I don’t think I’ll ever prefer contemporary pieces over some of the “classics,” but Ensemble Parallèle certainly made me want to explore modern music further and I look forward to next year’s production of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I can think of no higher praise.

[Disclosure: I received complimentary press tickets for this performance. Please refer to my policy page for more information.]

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