An Orpheus by Philip Glass without the poetic force of Jean Cocteau

The approach of this montage of Orphee to the emblematic Philip Glass piece is twofold. On the one hand, he reviews the score, of which the public only knew the version approved by him to be marketed in 2010, “an absolutely metronomic recording that this montage abandons completely”, said Jaume Matabosch, director of the Royal Theatre. This institution co-produces the work together with the Teatros del Canal, where it will be performed until Sunday, September 25.

On the other hand, the montage reviews, from a daring stage direction, the reading of the myth present both in Jean Cocteau’s film, released in 1950, and in the 1993 premiere in Massachusetts by Glass himself. The direction is provided by one of the emerging Spanish figures on the international scene, Rafael R. Villalobos.

This chamber opera is part of the trilogy that the American composer dedicated to Jean Cocteau. It was the first to be released. then they came The Belle and the Bete in 1994 and the terrible children in 1996. Three works that, although different in their scenic approach, all of them distance themselves musically from the beginnings of Glass; the well-known Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha Y Akhnaten. Composed and premiered with director Bob Wilson in the eighties, they revolutionized opera with an extremely minimal proposal. Although Orphee we will continue to find insistent rhythms and sustained arpeggios in which the melodies twist and turn in a hypnotic way, his treatment is clearly much more melodic.

the music director of OrpheeJordi Francés, insisted on this at the press conference and stated that Glass “is not a minimalist composer”: “The score of Orphee it’s very basic but what Glass does is leave a great deal of freedom to deal with it”, he added, affirming that he approached this project “from a baroque musical thought where more is followed than said”.

Thus, Francés has decided to make a musical version that moves away from the chamber opera format and introduces more than 30 live musicians on stage. “Glass also allows this montage to be done in this way, although he chooses to use a synthesizer that collects many instruments that are previously recorded,” he explains. Francés, however, has proposed a much more lyrical orchestrated version, with pauses and dramatic tempos that the singers know how to defend with passion and contemporary body work.

Cocteau’s poetic weight

Glass’s opera, which is sung in French, follows the lines of Cocteau’s film verbatim. A film that, apart from introducing us to the supernatural in a way hitherto unknown in cinema, disrupts the Greek myth through a powerful and new symbolic structure. A structure where art, death and love are redefined as never before. It is no longer the love of Orpheus who saves Euridice from the hands of death but rather it is death itself, the Princess —in the film played by an immeasurable and enigmatic María Casares— who replaces love. In a film dominated by the metaphor of the mirror, Cocteau was able to create a parallel reality that appealed to a mental, dreamlike underworld of very complex symbology. In the film, existential and symbolic, art wants to transcend death and ends up falling in love with it. The premiere directed by Glass in 1993, according to the studies and critics that have come down to this day, followed the line of Cocteau’s film, both in its approach to the myth and in its symbology. It is not trivial to remember that both, both Cocteau and Glass, faced their creations about Orpheus shortly after their partners died.



In this case, Villalobos, the stage director —who will arrive at the Liceu in Barcelona in January with Pucinni’s opera rough premiered at the La Monnaie theater in Belgium in June—has decided to break free from the influence of Cocteau. Figure of which, on the other hand, declares himself a fervent follower. “It’s the most complicated assembly I’ve done to date,” Villalobos declared at a press conference. “I felt the weight of the film until I decided to focus on the score. And I did not feel the Paris of the thirties that Cocteau reflects, but the New York of the nineties, a crucial moment for art, where the artist becomes a star, where the cultural market changes and becomes commodified”, he explained. “The character of Orfeo, in this version, embraces the most ruthless liberalism and gets lost, gets carried away by the markets and his work dies. That is what death represents, the death of art, which dreams of fame and loses its essence, ”he continued explaining. And he concluded by stating that, in this montage “the space is abstract, but at the same time the story is followed perfectly. Time becomes liquid, the planes of temporality and representativeness overlap. It is not known if what we see is true or post-truth”.

When empatar matters more than adding

In an empty space we see a grid of overhead lights from which monitors of different sizes hang. The grill tilts until it becomes frontal to the public, who sees different fragmentary images in which the aesthetics of television and American advertising of the nineties can be sensed. This will be all the scenery, there will be no props. Only this cathodic panel will be played continuously, which will go up and down several times during the performance, and with the shadows that the singers project on one side of the space. In this way, an attempt is made to transfer the symbolic power of the mirror in Cocteau’s work to the power of the cathodic image of the 1990s. Villalobos points out the importance in those years of the entry of cable into television, says the playbill: “The appearance of a hundred channels created a parallel dimension ‘on the other side of the screen’, a kind of mirror in which reality is not only reflected, but distorted”.

The problem is that the symbolic force in Cocteau’s work, which is still present in the sung text of the opera, as when it is said “when we look at ourselves in the mirror every day we see death at work, like bees in a glass hive”, It is not in the scenic proposal. The updating carried out by Villalobos, both political and sociological, and above all poetic and symbolic, does not provide new perspectives on the myth, rather what happens on stage sticks with the meaning and poetic weight of the text that the actors sing. Moreover, the cathodic parallelism appears hackneyed, flat. Updating the classics —and Cocteau is one— has to entail new perspectives and meanings. Here this vision contributes little to the existential problems in which Cocteau’s work investigates and which Glass complements with an atmospheric and spiral musical creation.



On the other hand, Villalobos, also responsible for the costumes, dresses the Princess as if she were a character from Matrix to later, in the most carnal moments, show it off with bodysuit transparency black. Everything in Villalobos’s bet tries to transfer Cocteau’s universe to a more up-to-date and contemporary image world. The examples are innumerable. But the problem is that it is not well known for what. If Cocteau used cinematographic language to delve into his personal review of the myth —dishwashing gloves converted into temporal transmitters, slow motion and reverse gear to dislodge background, temporality and movement, etc—, Villalobos forgetting the depth of the review of the myth of Cocteau, neither does he know how to use scenic tools so that his reading of the artist lost in the capitalist labyrinth takes shape. Neither the play of shadows that is nothing more than pretty or dramatic, nor the departure of actors from the stage a la Bob Wilson, nor the excessive gestures in the dramatic, contribute or innovate.

There remains, yes, a version of Orphee that stands out for the twinning between the dramatic tempo of the music and the interpretative intensity of the singers. The work loses coldness gaining moments of dramatic beauty that play in its favor. Also very interesting is the inclusion of texts by Cocteau himself, his advice to young artists, which Villalobos puts into Cégeste’s mouth, texts that, this time, do help a broader and more current rereading of art and the figure of the artist.

It is to celebrate the premiere in Spain of this work by Philip Glass who today, at 85 years old, continues to work. Soon the Kennedy Center in Washington will premiere a new work of his around the figure of Abraham Lincoln. An author who, despite having studied with the great Nadia Boulanger in the sixties, is still very influential in contemporary creation. In Madrid, on November 22, within the new season of the National Center for Musical Diffusion, at the National Auditorium, you can attend the dramatized and amplified concert of the opera Einstein on the Beachperformed by the Collegium Vocale Gen, the Ictus Ensemble, and whose main voice will be Suzanne Vega, a well-known composer and singer of songs such as Luke either Tom’s Dinner.

Also noteworthy is the attention that the Royal Theater devotes to the myth of Orpheus this season. Apart from this premiere, you can see L’Orfeo Monteverdi in November Y Orpheus and Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck in February. In addition, this premiere joins the centenary of the death of María Casares, the Galician actress who reigned in Europe and of which the National Film Library in Madrid will screen a cycle on her cinema with Jean Cocteau in November.

An Orpheus by Philip Glass without the poetic force of Jean Cocteau