Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Opera Parallèle presented the first of four performances of the “dance-opera spectacle” completion of Philip Glass’ triptych of theater pieces based on the works of writer and film director Jean Cocteau. “Les Enfants Terribles,” performed in a single act without intermission, is based on a novel of the same name, whose first English edition was published under the title The Holy Terrors and which was then made into a film that Cocteau directed in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville. The original conception of this operatic treatment was developed by Glass working with choreographer Susan Marshall. The idea was that the key characters would be represented by both dancers and singers, who would appear on the stage simultaneously.
The novel’s account of “terrible children,” whose perverse behavior unfolds as disturbingly provocative, would have been quite a blow to readers when the book first appeared in 1929; and the 1950 film had its own techniques of getting under the viewer’s skin. Last night’s staging was conceived by Opera Parallèle’s Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel, working with choreographer Amy Seiwert and media designer David Murakami. Considering the outrageousness of both the text and cinematic source material, the result was disconcertingly bland; and the realization of the narrative was more muddled than provocative. Admittedly, what was over-the-top to Cocteau would probably come across as benign, if not ordinary, to current audiences; but it is also possible that Staufenbiel and his team never quite managed to home in on what made this particular Cocteau creation so disturbing.
The bottom line is that the underlying narrative ended up being buried under media excess, beginning with a snowfall projected on three screens that seemed to go on forever before the first notes of Glass’ score were performed. While the performances of the four vocalists, Rachel Schutz, Hadleigh Adams, Andres Ramirez, and Kindra Scharich, were clear and expressive to their best of their abilities, the choreography, danced by Steffi Cheong and Brett Conway, tended to be frenetic and self-indulgent. Any sense of dramatic tension resided in the intensity of Glass’ score for three pianos, given as powerful a performance as one could hope for through the efforts of Kevin Korth, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Eva-Maria Zimmermann (the latter two being the members of the ZOFO Duet) under the disciplined and well-moderated baton of Nicole Paiement.
Given how much Glass managed to express through his music (which even includes a passing reference to the soundtrack of the Cocteau-Melville film, just as his Orphée included a brief glance at Christoph Willibald Gluck), it may be that, notwithstanding the composer’s original conception, this is a score that would sustain a much more powerful impact in a concert setting, leaving any visual implications to “the mind’s eye.”