A dance critic at the opera: Move it, singers!

Remember the old days, when Cadillac-sized opera singers planted their feet among the scenery and belted beautiful music with no thought to the dramatic possibilities of the opera? Art Scatter’s senior correspondent Martha Ullman West does, and she shudders at the memory. What’s more, she sees the old style’s residual effects in the staging of “Orphee” at Portland Opera. Her message: Pay attention to the dancemakers. They have lessons for the musical stage.

Philip Cutlip as Orphee and Lisa Saffer as La Princesse. photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Philip Cutlip as Orphee and Lisa Saffer as La Princesse. photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

First the disclaimer — my opera expertise is limited, although my opera attendance began when I was 10 when my father took me to a New York City Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. I really got the bug when I was in college, and for the past 35 years or so I’ve been an off and on subscriber to the Portland Opera.

So I belong to a generation of opera-goers that has seen a paradigmatic shift in staging: Gone, mostly, are the days when Licia Albanese, say, as the tragic Butterfly, planted her feet, opened her mouth and sang (in heavenly fashion, I might add) her concluding aria; or Pavarotti, as the lascivious duke in Rigoletto, did the same. Today, opera singers have to be able to move. Body language is part of the art form.

And in a Philip Glass opera, they ought to be able to move a lot more dynamically than they were directed to do in Orphee, which I saw Sunday afternoon. In all other respects I thought Portland Opera’s production was stunning, from the score, to the conducting, to the set, to the singing, particularly by Philip Cutlip as Orphee, Georgia Jarman as Eurydice and Lisa Saffer as the Princess.

BUT, my esteemed colleague David Stabler complained in The Oregonian that the production was static, and he’s right. Only Cutlip and Jarman seemed really physically at ease onstage, moving naturally, and with a certain amount of impulse. Saffer did indeed prowl from time to time, but that’s all she did, except to smoke, and everyone else moved stiffly and self-consciously, when they moved at all, except for a bit of leaping on and off of sofas and the bar in the party scene.

I couldn’t help thinking how different it would have looked if it had been directed by Jerry Mouawad in the way he staged No Exit for Imago. In fact, speaking of French poets, are we in Portland this fall enjoying a Season in Hell? (That’s Rimbaud’s long poem, and come to think of it, it would make a dandy opera.)

Glass deserves better physical direction for his operas. He has collaborated with a lot of choreographers. In fact, the first review I did for Dance Magazine, in 1979 (an essay review on post-modern dance in New York) included the premiere of DANCE, a piece he did with Lucinda Childs, which included elegant film images and for which he performed accompaniment himself.

His collaboration with Twyla Tharp for In the Upper Room is better-known, in part because it was for American Ballet Theater. And, yes, admittedly my field of expertise does make me want to see movement on the stage.

Or above it! Trisha Brown directed and choreographed a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo some years ago, which alas I’ve seen only on film, but she created some spectacular aerial movement for the dancers in her company, which were blended with the singers onstage.

We’ve seen another example of that blending in Portland Opera’s collaboration with dancemakers Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland of BodyVox on Carmina Burana, a concept the two have taken to other opera companies as well.

Mark Morris recently did an Orpheus and Eurydice, to Gluck’s glorious music, at the Met. It was not much more a critical success than the one Balanchine did in 1936 to the same score (a score  whose melodies are so beautiful that Glass pays homage with a short passage toward the end of Act One). Balanchine outraged the music critics, the stuffy Metropolitan audience, and the management by putting the singers in the pit, and including modernistic decor that reminded people of barbed wire. He did a second Orpheus ballet, in 1946, to Stravinsky’s score, with decor by Isamu Noguchi for Ballet Society. That was so successful it got residency at City Center for what became New York City Ballet. It has a terrifying ending in which the Bacchantes seize Orpheus and tear him to pieces.

In Jean Cocteau’s scenario for Glass’s Orphee, the Bacchantes could be characterized as a monstrous regiment of women; in fact, women generally are the villains of this piece. The Princess in her guise as patroness of the arts is viewed as destructive of the creative process; she then becomes the angel of death. Eurydice, pregnant, keeps Orphee from working, although the popular success that he has will surely support the family.

Popular success, however, isn’t what he wants. He wants applause from the intelligentsia at the opening party. That party wasn’t much fun — Hell just might be a French literary cocktail party — though the music was cheerful. The most amusing scene in this opera is the return of the couple from Hades to their apartment and the attempt to keep Orphee from looking at Eurydice’s face. That attempt fails, of course, and back across the River Styx they go.

And then it all turns out to have been a cauchemar, a nightmare, and there it ends, with Orphee and Eurydice locked in a marriage that Cocteau views as a kind of death.

While my irritation with Cocteau’s misogyny is profound, I think this opera is brilliant and Portland Opera performs it very well indeed. Mattaliano is to be congratulated for his boldness in presenting it, but I wish he’d either directed it himself or hired a choreographer to do it, for a lot of movement possibilities are inherent in the work. I hope to see more contemporary operas here. I dream of John Adams’  Doctor Atomic, which I saw only half of at the Met last year.