SAN FRANCISCO: Les Enfants Terribles
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In Review > North America

Les Enfants Terribles

Opera Parallèle

In Review Opera Parallele Enfants hdl 817
Adams, Schutz, Cheong and Ramirez in Opera Parallèle’s Enfants
© Steve DiBartolomeo

IN THE EARLY MONTHS of 2017, the Bay Area’s opera presenters inexplicably neglected the worldwide celebration of Philip Glass’s eightieth birthday on January 31, but Opera Parallèle paid tribute to the composer with a vibrant spring production of Les Enfants Terribles. The performance on May 26, the first of four scheduled at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, offered a well-conceived staging of Glass’s 1996 “dance-opera,” based on Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel. With music director Nicole Paiement conducting Glass’s mesmerizing three-piano score and director Brian Staufenbiel employing lean but imaginative stagecraft to present the story of the obsessive Parisian siblings Paul and Lise, the work’s visual, musical, dance and spoken-word elements merged in a singular vision.  

The third of a trilogy of Cocteau adaptations by Glass, following Orphée (1993) and La Belle et la Bête (1994), Les Enfants brings the trio to a devastating conclusion: “Thistledown spirits, tragic, heartrending in their evanescence,” Cocteau wrote of his title characters, “they must go blowing headlong to perdition.” Indeed, danger looms large for Paul and Lise, prepubescent when the opera begins, and already joined in a claustrophobic relationship centered on Paul’s fragility and illness. Their insular world further constricts with the death of their mother. Alone together in a world of fantasy and ennui, they play “The Game,” a bond that excludes others
to the point of disillusion, madness and a violent, shattering finale. Staufenbiel’s staging, Sean Riley’s sets and David Murakami’s projections effectively suggested the siblings’ home life with a few moveable set pieces, including matching brass beds, enhanced by projections on a set of three asymmetrical screens—video closeups of the singers, still photos of empty rooms and odd childhood toys. The opera’s dance element, choreographed by Amy Seiwert, featured a pair of dopplegängers who closely resembled the brother and sister in physical features, costumes (designed by Christine Crook) and forceful movement language. 

Baritone Hadleigh Adams, looking pale, youthful and slightly dazed as Paul, was the evening’s vocal standout; projecting the text with elegant line and idiomatic French, he imbued the character with a sense of unhinged delicacy. Soprano Rachel Schutz was more emphatic as Lise, goading Paul in their early scenes and singing with increasing strength and bite after the dressmaker Agathe presented herself as a rival for Paul’s affections. Kindra Scharich’s rich-toned mezzo was an asset as Dargelos and Agathe, and tenor Andres Ramirez was a robust, articulate Gérard. Dancers Steffi Cheong and Brett Conway dispatched Seiwert’s leaps, arabesques and falls with considerable élan; Conway’s solo in the ethereal dream sequence, set to Glass’s dramatically heightened music, was a marvel.

Paiement, who has emerged as one of the Bay Area’s most sympathetic opera conductors, led her piano trio (Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann) with precision and flair, moving the action forward at an irrevocable pace. This wasn’t the large-scale tribute one might have expected for Glass, but under Paiement’s leadership, the production made a potent impact.  —Georgia Rowe 

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