by Brian Howe
Les Enfants Terribles
Thursday, Jan. 19–Sunday, Jan. 22
Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh
Kill your idols, sure—but what happens when your idol tries to kill you? Perhaps, as in Les Enfants Terribles, you abdicate reality for a dark fantasy world you share with your sister, where mutual cruelty becomes a twisted but biddable kind of love.
Les Enfants Terribles is a fusion of opera and ballet by Philip Glass; the last in a trilogy of such hybrids based on the works of Jean Cocteau. Premiered in 1996, it was staged at Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater last week in honor of the composer's 75th birthday, with a French libretto and English narration and supertitles. Drawing talent from the NC Opera and Carolina Ballet, with new choreography and direction by Robert Weiss, the sold-out Sunday matinee was a crowd-pleasing, if muddled, enchantment.
The curtain rises on a snowball fight. Wintry music floats from the three pianos in the pit as fake snow sifts down on children, pelting each other with wooly balls. Paul is injured by a snowball, thrown by his idol Dargelos. More than a snowball, a stone is embedded inside—an apt symbol for the hard, cruel core within the deceptive softness of innocent love. Now Lise must care for both her brother and her ailing mother, whose mouth-gaping death scene is one of the opera's few comical moments. When the mother dies, Paul and Lise are left alone to care for each other in the room they share. Their friend Gérard serves as narrator, witness and Greek chorus.
Cocteau's original novel and film revolve around Paul and Lise's "game," where they torment and manipulate each other with fantasies. Oddly, the game is downplayed in the opera; we catch a few oblique references to it in the libretto, and witness one or two clear instances of it being played, but mostly we learn of it in the program notes. This elision renders the characters' subsequent actions incomprehensible.
After taking a modeling job, Lise meets Agathe, Dargelos' female doppelganger. Just as Dargelos plunged the siblings into their seclusion, Agathe threatens to unravel it, igniting a chain reaction of secret loves, jealousies and missed connections. Here, the game tragically spills over into the real world, culminating with a loaded gun and a gift of poison. Because the game's nature and importance have barely been established, the slapstick coincidences and sudden reversals read more like psychological melodrama than surreal dream-logic. Paul and Lise simply come off as unpleasant, bickering people, and we don't understand what sticks them together.
At Fletcher, the stage was sparely appointed with minimal furniture and projected backdrops, making room for the extra bodies—each character was played by both a singer and a dancer. The latter got the short end of the stick. Beyond some uneasily co-dependent duos, the dancers often just aped the singers, simply doubling rather than multiplying meaning. Rich opportunities for dramatic irony were largely ignored. When all of the pairs were onstage at once, the presentation landed somewhere between experimental anarchy and the clockwork precision of quality ballet. The novel format, however, was compelling.
The music was a constant highlight. For "hypnotically snowy," you'd have to call John Luther Adams to top Philip Glass, who could turn a phone-book recitation into a magical dream-world. Three pianists—one of whom, Wilson Southerland, was also the conductor—provided grinding ostinati and twinkling arpeggios pocked with ominously thundering chords, and I admired the players for finding their entry cues in the lean, repetitive music. The voices occasionally struggled to project over the pianos, but all the principals gave strong performances: baritone Timothy McDevitt, as a vulnerable yet blustery Paul, especially gave me chills at the moments of greatest rapture, though the singer/dancer pair that played Lise (soprano Jessica Cates and Lara O'Brien, respectively) earned the heartiest ovation. The spiraling climax left me breathless, at least, repaying the rough or confusing passages along the way.