Here, time stands still. There is only music, and the movement of children through space.
Three Steinways line up parallel to the apron of the stage at the Metro on Broadway, facing the podium to the right. Onstage is a pair of iron-frame beds, draped in magenta sheets, while a vertiginous flight of gold-orange steps leads up towards the flies, past a mezzanine to an aqua door.
These are the playing fields for The Game which brother and sister play in The Room, an autosuggestive and incestuous symbolic game that remakes the world they escape, yet spreads like poison into their tiny coterie in that world as they grow up.
Oakland Opera Theater’s production of Philip Glass’s Les Enfants Terribles, after Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel and later play, with musical direction by Deirdre McClure and stage direction by Tom Dean, is reset in Saigon from Paris, which eliminates the ever-falling snow of the original and suggests a colonial ambiance to the milieu and action.
Glass conceived the opera with ballets, and Oakland Opera is collaborating with the dynamic dancer-choreographer Danny Nguyen and his company, who provide the fantastic activity that surrounds and amplifies the dreams and perceptions of the little circle that feed off their own caprices.
Glass’ music, originally scored for three pianos, has an alternately horizontal or vertical quality of attack, with the recurrent figures, the “suspended animation” (in McClure’s words) of building, resolution, and building again. But there’s something different, peculiarly enjoyable about this piece in comparison to the composer’s excursions into setting libretti in Sanskrit and Ancient Egyptian.
Densely melodic, following the quick exchanges of the singers/characters (“cat and mouse,” in baritone Axel Van Chee’s words; there are no duets, trios or ensemble singing), the score deserves Glass’s preferred designation of “theater music,” and seems to be something particularly close to the composer’s heart, may be hearkening back to his days in Paris as student of Nadine Boulanger.
There are moments when the playing (excellently performed by Skye Atman, Paul Caccamo and Kymry Esainko, with Daniel Lockert alternating) reminded the audience of études, perfect for a tale of overextended pubescence that starts with slingshots and a dirtclod (originally snowball) fight after school. It may also remind one of Glass’ story of submitting period stylistic exercises to Boulanger, who reprimanded Glass for “not composing in the way Mozart made music,” Glass then realizing his aesthetic or academic correctness was merely the imitation of art.
That’s not the case here in this fluid but difficult work, melodic brightness counterpointed by a libretto of constant verbal battles. The company has found fine collaborators to essay the support and principal roles: Paul’s schoolboy friend Gerard (Ben Johns, alternating with Jonathan Smucker), secretly in love with Elizabeth; Cary Ann Rosko as Agathe (and posed on the steps with a sling as Paul’s schoolboy crush, Dargelos); and as brother and sister, superb Axel Van Chee and fascinating, feline Joohee Choi extracting the maximum out of a doomed incestuous love that’s expressed by lolling on beds in dusky light through blinds or squabbling in front of their friends, even in the bathtub, as Gerard spies on them.
Cocteau, object of surrealist scorn, had a precise sense of the strange mix of tragedy and soap operatic melodrama that descended from Racine into modernism, through Victor Hugo and Baudelaire. This production of “Monsieur Jean’s” Les Enfants Terribles pushes that extreme disparity of display and concealment to the limit, maybe revealing some conceptual problems in Glass’s otherwise excellent vision of the work.
Nguyen and his dancers, especially Sarah Pun-Richardson (who doubles Elizabeth, alternating with Tara Macken and Emily Mizuno) and Peggy De Coursey (in her mannequin death throes as The Mother)—and Nguyen himself, strange Angel of Death and shade of colonial war—are admirable in their sometimes-manic activity, but sometimes it’s too much and obscures the principals, whose real action is admittedly internalized, but isn’t that what modern opera’s good at representing, especially for Cocteau’s cultish brother and sister?
This goes for the narration too, which (taken from the novel) worked well on the film soundtrack in Cocteau’s ongoing elegant tones. But Larry Rekow’s voice can’t always cut the wall of music and is frequently flat in his handling of the translated poetic passages from the original book. These seem to be, again, cases of the composer not cutting back on the adapted material to allow the unspoken (unsung, unstaged) elements space to grow, like the shadow from The Game (and, presumably in this interpretation, the rising tide of war) that engulfs the lives of its players and their spectators. The choreographer, dancers and narrator deserve praise for their participation in an exciting production—so typical of this remarkable company-on-a shoestring—as do the designers: Rob Anderson, lights; Garrett Lowe, set: Margaret Lawrence, costumes; and Asa Hoyt, credited for “The Theatre of the Two Beds,” as Cocteau described them.
LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 22 at the Oakland Metro Opera House, 201 Broadway. $32-$36