Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Orphée presented by Ensemble Parallèle

Eugene Brancoveanu as Orphée
Haunting, hypnotic, and dreamlike: these are the words that best describe Ensemble Parallèle's production of Orphée, presented for two evenings at the Herbst Theatre. The audience of the sold-out Herbst was full of excited anticipation for this San Francisco premiere . Orphée, composed in 1991 by Phillip Glass, is a “homage” to the famous french avant-garde artist and film director, Jean Cocteau. Orphée, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, is the first part of a trilogy inspired by Cocteau's film La Belle et la Bête and his novel Les Enfants Terribles. Orphée is also a musical homage to various influential composers heard in the films, Bach being among them.

The Founder, Artistic Director, and Conductor of Ensemble Parallèle, the sprightly Nicole Paiement led her orchestra with vitality and passion. The opera began with the full orchestra on stage, and the cast occupying small landing spaces stage right and left of the main stage. With a nod to Cocteau's films, Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel in collaboration with video artist, Austin Forbord, utilized impressive floating framed video panels that enhanced the feeling of the blurring between the upper-world and the underworld, one of the major themes of the piece, and of Cocteau's film. As the opening scene came to an end, the orchestra slowly began to descend on an hydraulic platform and the action moved to the main stage where David Dunning's cubist set enhanced the feeling of “unreality” that the opera strove to express.

The score has the repetitive style, reminiscent of Glass, while also containing subtle nods to Kurt Weill, Bach and others. The cast was uniformly exceptional. Each performance was passionate, and well acted, and the voices were transcendent. Eugene Brancoveanu in the lead role of Orphée, conveyed the sense of loss and conflict required of the part and he did it with absolute commitment. Marnie Breckenridge, Princess of the Underworld, handled her difficult role with grace. She had the task of being both loving and evil. It's a hard thing to pull off, but she did it and she sounded fantastic. John Duykers, Heurtebise, was particularly impressive. His ability to convey a sense of loyalty to his princess, while at the same time, caring for the plight of the mortals was touching. The highlight of the piece was Act II. As the curtain rose the audience was introduced to the Underworld. Before us, in red and purple light was baritone, Phillip Skinner, playing the role of Judge. Flanked by a dragon, spewing forth steam, he stood nearly twenty feet in the air, wearing a white wig that was at least five feet high. It was an impressive site. His amplified baritone voice and haunting physicality created an riveting piece of theatre. The audience was also treated to three talented circus artists representing henchman of the underworld. Marina Luna hung from a fabric suspended from the ceiling where she performed acts of gymnastics that seemed to defy gravity. Rou Cyr Artist, David Pozanter, managed to create amazing feats on what can only be described as a gigantic hula hoop. Placing his body inside the hoop he circled the stage as the hoop carved its figures.

Phillip Glass has a particular gift of creating an atmosphere that seems to draw upon the subconscious and to cause the listener to feel as though they've just woken from a dream. Ensemble Parallèle succeeded completely in creating a spellbinding performance true to the intent of Glass and enhanced by superb acting and visual effects.