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Recordings

Philip Glass: Orphée
23 Mar 2011

Philip Glass’s Orphée

With voices of doom predicting the end of the CD format — supposedly to be replaced by downloading — the ancillary art of CD packaging also faces a grim future.

Philip Glass: Orphée

Orphée: Philip Cutlip; La Princesse: Lisa Saffer; Heurtebise: Ryan MacPherson; Eurydice: Georgia Jarman. The Portland Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Anne Manson.

Orange Mountain Music 0068 [2CDs]

$24.99  Click to buy

At first, as they replaced the wonderful world of 12-inch vinyl records and their sleeve art, CDs offered only cheap plastic cases, prone to breaking, with the art on the cover slips and booklets offering at its best some visual interest but in sadly reduced proportions. As time went on after the CD format’s debut, some companies learned how to create the CD case in other materials, with sleeves for booklets and textural appeal. But with the shrinking of the market, things seem to have devolved back to a rudimentary state — why put money into the packaging, when the market now is to sell as many copies at as low a price point as possible?

The above paragraph comes by way of saying that for your reviewer, the most impressive thing about the CD release of a 2009 Portland Opera performance of Philip Glass’s Orphée is the deluxe packaging. Brown-tinted photographs of the cast and sets are found on every face of the case, which opens up into a “four-fold” configuration. Inside there is a separate sleeve at each end, containing a booklet for each act, with libretto. The discs themselves match the color scheme of the packaging’s graphics, and for once they are easily removed and restored to their secure holding mechanism. Orange Mountain Music — which is, after all, the composer’s own label — has certainly created a beautiful keepsake for anyone who saw the performances and wants a permanent souvenir, as well as a lovely set for the composer’s many admirers — of whom, your reviewer cannot be counted.

Glass has adapted Jean Cocteau’s screenplay for that much greater artist’s updated film adaptation of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The production seen in Portland, as conveyed by the set’s many photographs, sets the scene in an upscale home, vaguely mid-20th century in appearance but with a late 20th century ironic twist to every spare detail. The libretto plays intriguing games with the well-known story, introducing other characters and settings to offer a prism-like view of the essential elements of reconciliation with death. The opera is not long — barely 100 minutes — but the tone of hip self-satisfaction with its own cleverness grows wearisome quickly.

As anyone with a passing familiarity with Glass’s music might expect, the score comes in sections, with a tempo and mood established initially that rarely varies much within a section, with any sense of development or variety coming from slight variations on the basic musical material or orchestration. One section ends, there’s a pause, and another section begins, until the last section is reached, and the whole thing slips into silence. Glass can come up with a catchy figure here and there, no doubt. With the libretto in French, some moments recall the languid mood found is some parts of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The comparison does not flatter Mr. Glass.

Conductor Anne Manson must be a fan of the composer, however, because she does very well by the score. In the hands of anyone less in tune with Glass’s musical world, the music can come across as so relentlessly banal it can provoke anger. Here, it’s all rather pleasant, though insubstantial and unmemorable. In the title role, Philip Cutlip sings with curiously flat emotional tone but welcome agility. Lisa Saffer in the key role of The Princess sounds a bit stressed sometimes by some high tessitura, but her middle voice is quite attractive. The rest of the cast matches their professionalism.

A DVD might be a more appropriate document for this opera, as the soundtrack alone may not convey the score’s possible intent of making ironic contrast to the action. As a listening experience, it will make for some gentle earwash as one admires the beauty of the set’s packaging.

Chris Mullins

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