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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ensemble Parallèle: Small Company Stages Big Production in Orphée at Herbst Theatre

Posted By on Tue, Mar 1, 2011 at 7:30 AM

Eugene Brancoveanu (left), Marnie Breckenridge, and Thomas Glenn in Orphée - STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO
  • Steve DiBartolomeo
  • Eugene Brancoveanu (left), Marnie Breckenridge, and Thomas Glenn in Orphée

Much like love, Ensemble Parallèle's production of the Philip Glass opera Orphée was a many-splendored thing. Not only did the production feature the usual operatic suspects (vocals, instrumental music, set, and costume design), but the audience at Herbst Theatre this weekend was also treated to elements drawn from film, visual art, and the circus. It's perhaps not so remarkable that a single production should combine all of these disciplines, given the opera's genesis in the Jean Cocteau film of the same name. What is remarkable is that any company -- particularly one as modestly sized as Ensemble Parallèle, which is staging but two operas and a handful of smaller events this year -- should handle such an ambitious, multifaceted work so well.

Marnie Breckenridge - STEVE DIBARTOLOMEO
  • Steve DiBartolomeo
  • Marnie Breckenridge
The story's ultimate source, the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, will be familiar to anyone who's picked up a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology. In Cocteau's 1950 film (the script of which serves as the opera's libretto), he reimagined the myth from a world-weary perspective: Instead of googly-eyed young lovers, Orphée and his lady are a fractious married couple, and the poet's ability to tame savage beasts with his lyrics is implied to be a thing of the past. An ugly incident in his favorite café leads to a fateful dalliance with La Princesse of the underworld, with dire implications for Eurydice as well as for Orphée -- if, that is, any of these events actually occurred.

Ensemble Parallèle fielded a talented, mostly young cast of vocalists, including a few current or former Adler Fellows from San Francisco Opera's acclaimed training program. Eugene Brancoveanu brought a smooth, effortlessly powerful tenor voice to the title role, and as the put-upon housewife Eurydice, soprano (and current Adlerian) Susannah Biller continued to demonstrate star potential. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge's Princesse was an icy delight, making the most of her character's imperiousness and vulnerability (and she got to sport some of the best of Christine Crook's terrific, 1950s-inspired costumes). Philip Skinner, Thomas Glenn, Austin Kness, and Brooke Munoz capably filled out the supporting vocal roles. While silent, the exploits of cirque artists Marina Luna, David Poznanter, and Ajina Slater were far from unnoticed, framing or adding interpretive depth to the action (Poznanter's dizzying roue Cyr served as the portal between the worlds of the living and dead).

But in a cast dominated by youth, it was veteran tenor John Duykers as Heurtebise who made the production come alive. As the Princess's chauffeur -- quite literally, an employee of Death itself -- he brought a winning humanity and dry wit to this otherwise grim persona. His tender rapport with Biller was especially poignant, but all of his scenes were in some way enriched by his resonant voice and finely calibrated acting.

Though the vocalists and the 14-member orchestra (conducted with verve and sensitivity by Ensemble Parallèle founder Nicole Paiement) hardly needed much embellishment, director Brian Staufenbiel's production design expanded upon the traditional elements of opera in an astonishingly effective fashion. It would be easy for a production of this scope to feel cluttered in Herbst's relatively intimate space, but under Staufenbiel's direction, the singers, cirque artists, props, and film art never seemed to compete for attention on Dave Dunning's versatile set. As a result, each element shone, both in its own right and in relation to the production as a whole. It also helped that Staufenbiel found compelling ways of enlarging the boundaries of the stage, including setting a couple of scenes on the stairs and landings to the stage's right and left, placing the orchestra on a platform that dropped into the pit after the first scene, using video screens to show action that would have necessitated different settings (and to pay homage to Cocteau), and unleashing the cirque artists to roam the aisles and wreak mild havoc as patrons found their seats.

Indeed, one of these interactions left as much of an impression as anything that happened during the opera's course. After I entered the theater, a white-faced imp reached down from his perch above the aisle and demanded my ticket. I reflexively handed it over, despite having just done so at the behest of a significantly more official usher, and was not a little perplexed when I was informed that my ticket was actually for Saturday night's performance (yes, I attempted to reason with a clown before realizing that I'd been had). The program touts the opera's ability to unsettle the nature of reality, but aside from the who-shot-JR ending, that aspect was never as fully realized as it was in that moment -- before the "real" show had even begun.

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Emily Hilligoss


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