|Eugene Brancoveanu and Marnie Breckenridge in OrphĂ©e. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
By Ray Renati
Haunting, hypnotic and dreamlike. These are the words that best describe Ensemble ParallĂ¨leâ€™s production of OrphĂ©e, presented for two evenings at the Herbst Theatre. And excited anticipation filled the sold-out theatre for this San Francisco premiere. OrphĂ©e, composed in 1991 by Phillip Glass, is a â€śhomageâ€ť to the famous French avant-garde artist and film director, Jean Cocteau. OrphĂ©e, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, is the first part of a trilogy inspired by Cocteauâ€™s film La Belle et La BĂŞte and his novel Les Enfants Terribles. OrphĂ©e is also a musical homage to various influential composers heard in the films.
The sprightly Nicole Paiement, the Founder, Artistic Director and Conductor of Ensemble ParallĂ¨le, led her orchestra with vitality and passion.
Beginning with the full orchestra on stage, the cast occupies small landing spaces stage right and left of the mainstage. With a nod to Cocteauâ€™s films, Brian Staufenbiel (stage director) in collaboration with Austin Forbord (video artist) utilizes impressive floating framed video panels that enhanced the blurring between the upper-world and the underworld, one of the major themes of the piece and of Cocteauâ€™s film. As the opening scene came to an end, the orchestra slowly began to descend on a hydraulic platform, and the action moved to the mainstage where David Dunningâ€™s cubist set enhanced the feeling of â€śunreality.â€ť
The cast was uniformly exceptional. Each performance was passionate, and well acted, and the voices were transcendent. Eugene Brancoveanu (title role) 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. Itâ€™s a hard thing to pull off, but she did it. And her soprano voice was transcendent. 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 (Judge). Flanked by a steam-spewing dragon, he stood nearly 20 feet in the air, wearing a white wig that was at least 5 feet high. An impressive site. His amplified baritone voice and haunting physicality created a 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 defied gravity. David Pozanter (Rou Cyr artist) 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.
Composer Glass has a particular gift for creating an atmosphere that seems to draw upon the subconscious and causes the listener to feel as though theyâ€™ve just woken from a dream. And his score has his characteristic repetitive style, while also containing subtle nods to Kurt Weill, Bach and others.
With OrphĂ©e, Ensemble ParallĂ¨le has succeeded completely in creating a spellbinding performance true to the intent of Glass and enhanced by superb acting and visual effects. For more information about this ensemble-in-residence at the SF Conservatory of Music, go to ensembleparallele.com.