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The first of Philip Glass’ Cocteau Trilogy, the chamber opera “Orphée”, opens next Monday at the Teatros del Canal.

In the year that marks the 85th birthday of Phillip Glass, the Teatro Real has decided to programme the Spanish premiere of Orphée, the Baltimore composer’s two-act chamber opera, which will be performed in five performances in the Sala Roja of the Teatros del Canal from September 21st to 25th at 20:30 (19:30 on Sunday the 25th), with musical direction by Jordi Francés and stage direction by Rafael Villalobos.
Glass composed Orphée in 1991, commissioned by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it premiered on 14 May 1993. By then, Glass was already an established composer, famous for his operatic successes such as Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten. Orphée was, chronologically, the fourteenth of his operatic productions, whether these were full-length operas or chamber operas. Orphée, however, might rank first in terms of the composer’s intentions: in 1954 Glass had visited Paris for the first time to study French – ten years before returning as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger – and immersed himself for a time in the bohemian world of the French playwright, painter, film director and much else besides, Jean Cocteau (Maisons-Laffitte, 1889-Milly-la-Forêt, 1963).
Orphée was the first major play written by Cocteau, which premiered in Paris in 1926. It was based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, who, when he played the lyre, was able to calm the wild beasts and make humans forget their worries. It was in this way that he made Eurydice fall in love and put the fearsome Cerberus to sleep when he descended to the underworld to try to resurrect his beloved. Years later, in 1950, Cocteau directed a film of the same title, starring Jean Marais, which he set in the Paris of the time.
“The bohemian life you see in [Cocteau’s] Orphée was the life that I knew and was attracted to, and those characters were the people I hung out with,” Glass wrote in 1993 in the book Orphée – The Making of an Opera, written for the world premiere of his two-act opera based on Cocteau’s film. “I visited painters’ studios and saw their work and I went to the Beaux Arts ball and stayed up all night and ran around”.
Glass’s early admiration for Cocteau’s work was not endorsed until he felt he was already established. And he wanted to tackle a trilogy of musical theatre pieces based on the Frenchman’s films. Glass took the original scripts of Cocteau’s three major films – Orphée (1950), Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Les Enfants terribles (1950) – and turned them respectively into a chamber opera, a film with music and a ballet, the latter two of which were released in 1994 and 1996. Orphée is an extended parable about the life of an artist, a poet bullied and misunderstood by his peers. His success leads him to be scorned by his fellow poets, leading to an isolation that cripples him creatively. With a renewed awareness of his own mortality, Orpheus regains his emotional strength, which allows him to ignore the trials of ordinary life, freeing him to become a poet. The poets Orpheus and Jacques Cégeste, Eurydice and a mysterious princess (Death) interact within the worlds of the living and the dead, existing in that mysterious realm that separates the two worlds. Love triumphs and thus returns Orpheus and Eurydice to mortal life, leaving them unaware of their unusual sojourn between the worlds. The Princess has violated the laws of life and death once again and is banished to oblivion.
It is obvious that Glass could identify with the brilliant multidisciplinary French artist (novelist, poet, actor, playwright, painter, stage designer, art critic, designer and filmmaker), a man who resented the superficial regard with which society viewed his success and the apparent casualness with which he carried himself in many fields, which made him consider himself a misunderstood genius. The parallels are obvious: Glass has been similarly vilified on numerous occasions, both by fellow composers and critics… and loved by his audiences.

Glass described the trilogy as a “tribute to Cocteau, whom I think of as an important twentieth-century artists. In his time he was thought of as being too facile: he wrote poetry and plays and novels, he painted and he directed films. And people quite incorrectly thought he was a dilettante. Today the French are dismissive and protective of him at the same time. But remember, even by 1954 when I went to Paris for the first time, Cocteau was already considered passé. The film Orphée is an autobiographical work about an older artist displaced by a younger one. And whom is he killed by at the end? His fellow poets”.
The libretto of Glass’s opera, a small work (barely a hundred minutes long) follows Cocteau’s script almost word for word, scored for twelve instrumentalists and four soloists. Not since Satyagraha has Glass composed a score of such goldsmith’s perfection, and one wonders if the reason might be due to the conjunction of the personal and the professional. Indeed, Glass identifies with Cocteau, but he must also identify with Orpheus himself: the musician trying to bring back from the Underworld his deceased beloved. Glass’s third wife, the artist Candy Jernigan, whom he met on a flight from Amsterdam to New York, and who would go on to create several of his album covers, including The Photographer, died on 5 June 1991, shortly before he composed Orphée, and one cannot help but suspect that Orpheus’s grief must reflect the composer’s own grief. For whatever reason, Orphée offers a clarity of texture, a subtlety of instrumental colour and, above all, unfettered vocal writing of an almost novel, newly acquired expressiveness. There is an elegant dignity and caution at the origin of Glass’s composition, as if he was inspired as much by Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice as by Cocteau.

© Photo downloaded from Philip Glass’ website.