'Orphee' is fresh treatment on classical myth

| Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 5:29 p.m.

American composer Philip Glass casts a wide net in his search for subjects for his opera, which have ranged from the Civil War in “Appomattox,” to an iconic scientist in “Einstein on the Beach,” to one sung in Sanskrit inspired by the life of Mahatma Gandhi, “Satyagraha.”

As a stylistically innovative creator, Glass is strongly attracted to the work of French author and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, whose “Orphee” is one of three films by Cocteau which Glass has made into operas.

Cocteau's fresh treatment of the Orpheus myth, accomplished with a brilliant script and alluring cinematography, is considered a classic. Glass used Cocteau's script with minimal changes, but made his own shifts of emphasis in an opera that has proven popular with performers, audiences and critics.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performance of “Orphee” by Philip Glass starting on April 26 at the Benedum Center. Note that the May 4 performance will start at 3 p.m., a half-hour later than usual for opera matinees because of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

“Orphee” was first performed in 1993 at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Pittsburgh Opera is presenting stage director Sam Helfrich's version, which was first seen in 2007 at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“The fundamental myth is Orpheus loses his beloved wife and goes to the underworld to get her back,” Helfrich says. Cocteau was “messing with the myth” by looking at it through the idea of an unhappily married couple rather than the ideal.

Cocteau's treatment of the myth also introduces a character, the Princess, who comes for the people who are to die, long before Ingmar Bergman's films. She falls in love with Orpheus, which is an entirely new aspect to the story.

“This is not the Orpheus and Eurydice we see in any other version of this myth,” Helfrich says. “It shows the duality or tension between artistic life and the conventional life of family and marriage. Cocteau is asking, ‘Can they coexist?' I think Philip Glass leaves it a little more open.”

Conductor Antony Walker says the opera is very French, both because of Glass's talent for language and the music, including harmony, he employed. But he emphasizes that Glass embraces a wide variety of styles, including American ragtime, Brazilian dances and tango, as well as polytonality.

Baritone Matthew Worth, returning to Pittsburgh Opera to star as Orphee, watched Cocteau's film only once.

“I really enjoy the way Mr. Glass set the Cocteau text. What's he's done is create a serpentine way to text setting, which is conducive to singing in the French manner,” he says.

He says he can relate to some of the tensions Orphee feels in Cocteau's script, the professional ones.

“Orphee is a relatively young poet and feels like he's had success,” Worth says. “We all, as artists, reach a point where there's a younger generation coming up behind us. There are a number of fantastic young baritones today.”

Soprano Caroline Worra is glad to be returning to the role of Eurydice, which she created at the premiere of Helfrich's staging at Glimmerglass.

“I love the way that Glass has set this entire opera. My character in particular is a very sympathetic character throughout the opera,” Worra says. “My lines are very lyrical and beautiful and soar over the top of an always very energetic orchestra. I think the dichotomy between the underlying stress she's feeling compared to what she's trying to portray — how much she love her husband despite the way he's behaving very badly.”

Despite the seriousness of the subject, Helfrich says both Cocteau and Glass treat everything with a bit of a wink.

“There's a sense of fun all the way. It has a sense of gravitas, but that is interrupted by silly and ridiculous things,” he says. “People really seem to engage with the opera. I've never seen an audience become bored with this piece, that's for sure.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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