Once again, San Francisco offers us an original, Opera Parallèle’s “Les Enfants Terribles” by celebrated American composer Philip Glass. In 1996, Glass adapted the story from the novel (1929) and film (1950) of the same name by the famous French artist and toast of the town Jean Cocteau, who himself took the myth of eternal youth as his starting point.
Glass’s opera-ballet takes us into the fantasy world of two adolescent siblings, Elisabeth and Paul. Three pianos with conductor perform the score; three screens project multiple visuals; four singers perform the French libretto, one doubling as narrator of the English adaptation; and two ballet dancers interpret the vocal score in dance. Not one single gap—from the opening snowstorm, projected across the entire stage and its triplet of screens, and the rock-studded snowball injuring Paul; through the reel of dramatic contretemps indoors; to the climactic finale—intercepts the entire production.
“Children of the Game,” a popular English translation of the work’s title, is the third of Glass’s Cocteau trilogy starting with “Orphée” (1991) and continuing with “La Belle et la Bête” (1994). Glass has said he centered the first opera on transcendence, the second on romance, and this third on tragedy. Cocteau’s characters form the basis for the catchphrase from his creation onward, referring to those unconventional risk-takers who live their lives as if on a dare.
As far as plot, simply, this is what we have:
Paul (elegant baritone Hadleigh Adams) and Elisabeth (dynamic and dramatic soprano Rachel Schutz) live in one single room and their own private world. Gérard (flexible and intense tenor Andres Ramirez), also playing the narrator of the English text, Paul’s childhood friend, rescues him from the rock-imbedded snowball thrown at him at school. Elisabeth—Lise—is irritated by Gérard bringing Paul home, partly because she shuns Gérard’s affections, and partly because she feels overworked tending to their mother’s eventually fatal illness (off-stage). But Lise is roused to action when she realizes that Paul’s schoolmate, Dargelos, is not only the culprit of the injury/illness, but Paul’s love interest. She masterminds a plot to keep Paul to herself, instigating a relationship between Gérard and Agathe (the vivacious and energetic mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich), the model-cum-mentor who enables Lise to become a model and gain financial and emotional independence. Paul, however, seeing Agathe, sees her with the face of Dargelos and instantly falls in love with her, thus setting into motion the terrible plot that breeds destruction.
Doppelgängers abound in plot and performers, and the probably incestuous brother and sister, variants of Sieglinde and Siegmund, are further duplicated by the skillful choreography of Amy Seiwert, as the dancers Steffi Cheong, playing Elisabeth, and Brett Conway, playing Paul, shadow almost every action of their vocal counterparts and physicalize every emotion sung. Thus, a quartet of mirrors besets us as the story unfolds. Even one quick glance away, what with duplicate wigs and costumes, done by Christine Crook and Sophia Smith, puts us at risk of forgetting who’s who. However, we can neither forget nor dissolve the tension so generated, nor do we want to, since the beauty and artistry of the presentation rivets us. As Cocteau said, Beauty affects even those who don’t notice it.
Brian Staufenbiel is Director par excellence. He fuses not only these many narrative and dramatic elements but the magical projections created by David Murakami. These include shots of Cocteau’s original line drawings, and the unique film shot by Staufenbiel, Murakami, Saskia Lee, and Joe Bourekas, in the San Francisco home of Betty Wallerstein. Inset into Sean Riley’s set and lit by Matthew Antaky, these intensify the drama as Glass’s score uncoils from the opening motif, intense, repetitive, and flexible. Conducted by Nicole Paiement, and performed by pianists Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Eva-Maria Zimmerman, the synthesis builds as the sound stretches and spills across the three pianos, one picking up where the other ends. It is layered enmeshment, ultimately, and it casts a spell. Not simply the evolving repetition throughout, but the echoes of the Bach Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins, which Cocteau himself used in the 1950 film version, brings us up right against the Cocteau works and the other artists alluded to in this unique moment. Doubling, mirroring, and shadowing work on multiple levels, creating a kind of chamber-mosaic, aptly accenting the opera’s hermetic nature. Under Paiement’s skillful baton, we are thrust forward as we remain immersed. We do not lose focus or containment; only complete resolution brings relief and that itself is no escape. All this in one hour and fifteen minutes.
As we leave the display of adolescent narcissism, questions of the one and the many that pervade the western artistic and philosophic traditions needle us: Are brother and sister halves of one or two? Vide Plato’s Symposium? Are the dancers? (Or are they three or four?) Is there such a thing as unity and duality at all, or same and opposite? Despite its Gallic milieu, Glass’s opera offers multiple cultural overlays: Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” the enfant terrible who stretched beyond his reach: ‘Infinite riches in a little room,’ and of course Beckett and his two ever-waiting tramps. Any claustrophobic reactions we might experience in this confinement we surrender long before the finale to this many-layered journey, more than convinced if one of multiple realities even exist? Or is it all virtual?
Opera Parallèle’s satisfying production of Glass’s work grants us no time for answers let alone separation. We cannot exist until we exit, and that only happens as it extrudes us. Identified as a minimalist, and celebrated internationally in this his 80th year, Philip Glass stretches us to vastness: time and space à la Einstein, nonviolence à la Gandhi, and spiritual and political alternatives à la Akhnaten. Not one for nearsighted views, Glass compels us to expand anyway in this world/universe of ours, plunged into the middle of no-place and going to no-post. As we walk beyond OP’s doors and realm of multitalented artists and attempt again to muddle through, we thank Opera Parallèle and the probing Philip Glass for taking us on through.