Prolific composers, during their lifetimes, are thought to be unserious. It happened to Mozart; it’s happened to Philip Glass. And in Glass’s case, as in Mozart’s, posterity will probably override contemporary opinion. It’s true that there are some eminently forgettable pieces in his catalogue, but there are a whole lot of masterpieces, too — which seemed to come into focus this season as Glass saw revivals of “Satyagraha” at the Met and “Einstein on the Beach,” which will open in March in Montpellier, France, and continue on tour into 2013. He celebrated his 75th birthday in January with an iTunes release and Carnegie Hall premiere of his Ninth Symphony.
In the Washington area, a production that wasn’t planned with Glass’s birthday in mind bore out, again, just what a phenomenally gifted composer he is: the Virginia Opera’s “Orphee” at George Mason University in Fairfax. Staging a Glass opera was a leap for a company that’s traditionally been more conservative, and not every patron may have gone along with it (“It sounds like ‘The Twilight Zone!’ ” was one audience member’s comment), but it was a brave step and offered, on Friday, a decent performance of a downright stunning opera.
Glass has been as prolific in opera as he has in everything else; he’s written 24, by his own count. If the opera-going public is not always fully aware of this, it’s because many of these works were not written for opera houses. The 1993 “Orphee,” the first in a trilogy based on films by Jean Cocteau, was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
This can lead to the mistaken idea that what Glass writes is somehow not really opera — an idea that “Orphee” should, for anyone who’s really listening, definitively put to rest. “Orphee” is rife with melody and musical drama. Yes, Glass uses repeating musical ideas as building blocks, but those blocks are juxtaposed so closely in this score that it bristles with event — now snatches of jazz in the opening party scene, now tension you can cut with a knife mounting between Orphee and his wife, Eurydice, as they argue about his obsession with his art. The text-setting is both straightforward and Gallic, evoking at once the French “melodie,” or art song, and the sung-speech approach of Monteverdi, whose 17th-century Orpheus opera is the first on the subject in the contemporary canon. This score shows Glass speaking French; Glass showing his intimacy with the history of opera; and Glass writing just plain pretty music, for anyone able to discard their preconceptions about so-called “minimalism” and wallow in, for instance, the love duet between Orphee and the Princess in the second act. It may be a chamber opera, but minimal it ain’t.
Conductor Steven Jarvi, unfortunately, was not able to elicit the full palette of colors from the members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra on Friday; the music felt slightly monochromatic. Sam Helfrich’s production — seen at Glimmerglass in 2007 and the Portland Opera in 2009 — tended toward the monochrome, but deliberately so. Andrew Lieberman’s set, inset in a letterbox rectangle that evoked the work’s cinematic origins, was a tastefully furnished interior with the anonymous beige ambience of a high-end hotel. This elegant but airless setting stood in for a glamorous salon, the poet’s apartment and even the underworld, until its very normalcy became claustrophobic.
Cocteau’s 1949 film moved the Orpheus legend into the modern day; Helfrich kept it in a timeless present that defied pinning down, and the company peopled it with able young singers. Glass’s writing for the female voice can be uncomfortably stratospheric, but Heather Buck nobly navigated the lead role of the Princess, a wealthy patroness who turns out to be a personification of Death and who falls in love with the poet and he with her. As Eurydice, Sara Jakubiak eventually showed a solid, slightly darker and more colorful voice, earthy where the Princess was ethereal. Matthew Worth’s Orphee had a warm full baritone, although his French left something to be desired; he was presented as a famous hipster poet, dressed in the kind of checked flannel work shirt that Glass often sports.
The tenors had a harder time with the high vocal writing. As Heurtebise, the Princess’s chauffeur who falls in love with Eurydice, Jeffrey Lentz sounded strained. Jonathan Blalock was also thin as the young poet Cegeste, a rising star who dies and becomes, like Heurtebise, a member of the Princess’s retinue. Christopher Temporelli was a respectable Judge, and Marta Wryk — herself pregnant, like a forecasting of Eurydice’s future — did fine in the standard female-confidante role of Aglaonice.
“Orphee” represents something rare in the contemporary operatic canon: a film-based opera that is fully conscious of the aesthetic ramifications of moving from one medium to another. Rather than simply setting the Cocteau, Glass undertakes a translation, moving Cocteau’s real-world updating back into the realm of stylization and archetype (All the characters are singing! This isn’t real life!), but with a contemporary weight that it wouldn’t have otherwise had. A virtue of Helfrich’s production is that it’s not heavy-handed about inserting contemporary references. It’s Glass’s music that wraps the opera in the aura of the 20th century and explains to us that this remains a fable for our time. Kudos to the Virginia Opera for taking a step out of its comfort zone and putting on something strong and thought-provoking that, at evening’s end, raises questions about the nature of opera itself.