Cocteau, Glass tell surrealistic Orpheus tale

San Francisco’s Ensemble Parallele, a contemporary chamber opera company, is up for a new adventure, presenting the local premiere of Philip Glass’ “Orphée” (“Orpheus”) this weekend at Herbst Theatre.

Ensemble Parallele music director and conductor Nicole Paiement is at the helm of the production, featuring one of Glass’ more accessible scores, with design and direction by Brian Staufenbiel.

While movies sometimes are source material for musicals — for example, Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” a glorious stage version of Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night created 38 years ago — it took the ever-experimenting Glass to create a series of operas from classic films by Jean Cocteau.

Glass first made an opera from Cocteau’s 1949 “Orphée” before going on to “La Belle et la Bete” (“Beauty and the Beast”) and “Les Enfants Terribles” (“Children of the Game”).

Set in contemporary Paris, “Orphée” the movie is based on the Greek myth about Orpheus, the son of the god Apollo, whose most familiar exploit was to descend into the underworld to reclaim his dead wife, Eurydice.

Far from the straightforward story of the legend, the film and opera are both bizarre creations.

In this Ensemble Parallele production, Eugene Brancoveanu plays the title character; other characters include a Princess (Marnie Breckenridge), Eurydice (Susannah Biller) and a young poet (Thomas Glenn).

In one scene, the body of the murdered poet is driven in the Princess’ car, with Orpheus and others along for the ride, as the radio plays abstract poetry, “in the form of seemingly meaningless messages, like those broadcast to the French Resistance from London during the Occupation.”

Breckenridge, who sang David Conte’s settings of Anne Sexton’s poetry with Ensemble Parallele last year, is enthusiastic about music director Paiement. She says, “She breathes with the singers, infuses each phrase with feeling, and honors every note the composer wrote.”

The soprano also is excited about her first role in a Glass work because she plays a character that is in control. She says, “I get to play a regal woman who is in the driver’s seat, so to speak. This gives me a break from some of the weaker, more victimized women, in my usual repertoire.” Among those roles are Cleopatra, Gilda, Lucia and Lulu — all characters who met tragic ends.



Presented by Ensemble Parallele

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

$25 to $85

Contact: (415) 392-4400,

Opera around the Bay

While San Francisco Opera is dark until summer, other companies across the region —  in addition to Ensemble Parallele — offer a range of options. Here are a few upcoming productions:

Opera San Jose

Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” runs today through Sunday at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose;

West Bay Opera

Puccini’s “Turandot” runs Saturday and Sunday at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto;

S.F. Conservatory of Music

Handel’s “Alcina” runs March 5-6 at 50 Oak St., S.F.;

Pocket Opera

Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., S.F.;

Berkeley West Edge Opera

Bizet-Khuner-Streshinsky’s “The Carmen Fixation” runs March 5-13 at Performing Arts Theater, 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito;

Martinez Opera

Bizet’s “Carmen” is at 7 p.m. March 12 at the Alhambra Performing Arts Center, 150 E St., Martinez;

North Bay Opera

Verdi’s “Falstaff” runs March 6-12 at Fairfield Center for Creative Arts, 1035 Texas St., Fairfield;

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