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Oakland Opera Theater

Les enfants terribles

October 7, 2006

Joohee Choi,
Axel Van Chee
Photo by
Lori Eanes

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Arrested Development

By Michael Zwiebach

Philip Glass is probably the most successful opera composer alive, and one of the most interesting and versatile. So where do you go in the Bay Area to see Glass’ operas staged? Why, the tiny Oakland Metro Operahouse of course, where Oakland Opera Theater makes its home. OOT is at it again with a searingly dramatic production of Les enfants terribles, the third of Glass’ "Cocteau trilogy." Although Saturday night’s performance was a little uneven, the show is a must-see for Glass fans, not to mention anyone interested in visceral musical theater.

Writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) collaborated with or inspired a number of musicians, including Erik Satie (Parade, 1917), Igor Stravinsky (Oedipus Rex, 1928), and Francis Poulenc (Les biches, 1923, and Le voix humaine, 1959). But Glass may be Cocteau’s greatest musical advocate, because he so clearly understands what the writer wanted expressed. He works through the words and images instead of using them as scaffolding for his musical architecture.

Glass’ earlier Cocteau operas, Orphée and La belle et la B’te (Beauty and the Beast), were accompanied by the films they were based on, creating a hybrid form. Les enfants terribles (The Holy Terrors) is a different sort of hybrid. Created with the choreographer Susan Marshall, it fuses opera and dance in a way that Cocteau probably would have loved. The sung work exists in the "real world" — look through the mirror of the unconscious, however, and there is the expressive and immediate world of dance, the super-real. It was Cocteau, after all, who coined the term “surreal.”

Bringing the inside world out and the outside in

In Les enfants terribles, his 1929 psychological novel, which he later adapted as a screenplay for Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 movie, Cocteau turned the world of childlike imagination into a claustrophobic nightmare. Living in a home with just their invalid mother, the two siblings, Paul and Elisabeth (or Lise), create a private world of fantasy, which they call "the game." When Paul is badly injured in schoolyard horseplay by the popular Dargelos, who Paul idolizes, he is excused from school and the children’s world becomes even more insular. Unable and unwilling to live outside the cocoon of "the game," the children never grow up. They draw their friends, Gérard and Agathe, into their jealous quarrels, which ultimately end in self-destruction.

Using only three pianos (in tribute to Melville, who used Bach’s Concerto for Four Harpsichords in the score of his film) Glass devised a brilliantly direct strategy for expressing this perversion of childhood fantasy. On the one hand, you hear a gently murmuring figure expand in slow, lyrical turns, which might represent — to use the composer’s words — "snow, which falls relentlessly throughout the opera." It might also represent, "young, capricious, impulsive children," as the OOT’s Musical Director Deirdre McClure suggested in a program note. The other music is percussive, syncopated, and more harmonically active. Yet even in the dramatic music, a vein of elegiac melody often appears, amid straining ostinatos, which mediate the two contexts.

You don’t have to be a literary critic to see Les enfants terribles as a metaphor for being "in the closet," since Paul and Lise are voluntarily confined to their room. "The game" sucks the life out of its participants. Problematic emotions are walled up rather than expressed, and turn bitter. Any chance of escape for either of the pair is resented by the other, leading to Lise’s manipulative scheme that precipitates the tragedy.

Director Tom Dean, by contrast, chose to read the opera as a commentary on colonial narcissism — he set it in 1954 Saigon and cast Asian singers as the siblings. Thus, Paul’s infatuation with the schoolboy Dargelos, and subsequently with Agathe (who looks like Dargelos), could be seen as his internalization of a Western ideal of beauty. That ideal contributes to Paul’s poor self-image and Dargelos becomes a symbol of French contempt for the colonized. In addition, Dean showed us an outside world rife with violence, where law and order were only for the elite. It was a powerful analogy, but one that ultimately functioned as an add-on. The opera, like the novel, is tightly focused on interior spaces: the wide, wicked world is barely sketched in.

Much more fruitful was Dean’s collaboration with choreographer Danny Nguyen and the Nguyen Dance Company. By giving the dancers the main role in establishing the exterior world of the opera, Dean integrated the expressive aspects of the work. But Nguyen and his dancers also merged into Paul and Lise’s interior world, sometimes alternating with the singers to portray the same moments in time. Nguyen, who seems to have absorbed a variety of modern dance idioms, showed a surprising talent for delineating character and situation through movement — his choreography was more of a storytelling element than a reflection or interpretation of the action.

The problem for the dancers, inevitably, was lack of room to move freely on the set. You sensed the constraint of some of the movements, particularly the more athletic ones. In some cases, dancers had to file off stage between set pieces, instead of making effective exits. It was difficult for the ensemble to maintain good spacing, but Nguyen made good use of what there was, and ranged his dancers over the entire stage area.

Joohee Choi and Axel Van Chee
Photo by Ralph Granich

Above all, the performances of Joohee Choi and Axel Van Chee as Lise and Paul powered this production. Lise needs to exude magnetism: She has to draw Gérard and Agathe into the siblings’ world. Her vocal lines sometimes sound like a child putting on adult sophistication she has gleaned from movie heroines. Choi found both of these sides of the character and the cool detachment of Lise’s scheming side, as well. Her voice sometime lost tone and focus in the faster, conversational passages, and some of her midrange notes were fuzzy, but as a whole her performance was riveting.

Van Chee was an even stronger singer, with tremendous physical grace. His generous, solid baritone easily dominated the theater and the heavy piano accompaniment. Paul’s continual petulance could be a problem for the show, but Van Chee’s coiled energy and sense of musical line restored some balance to the character. As Gérard, Ben Johns had exactly the right idea, portraying an insecure young man in a struggle to embrace life. Johns’ baritone is steady and on pitch, if a little underdeveloped in the upper register. Cary Ann Rosko as Agathe (and Dargelos) was masterful. She sang incisively and with passion. Larry Rekow, who spoke the part of the narrator, was clear and involved with the drama.

The pianists, Skye Altman, Paul Caccamo, and Daniel Lockert, all deserve combat pay for their work. There were a few coordination problems and some overzealous attacks and fortissimos, but a surprising amount of detail also emerged from their work together. Deirdre McClure conducted with urgency, but also caught the lyrical flow and unexpected charm of the work. That OOT, even with its shoestring budget, can bring off such an assured performance of a rarely heard contemporary piece is the greatest tribute to the company I can think of.

(Michael Zwiebach holds a Ph.D. in music history from UC Berkeley.)

©2006 Michael Zwiebach, all rights reserved