Here’s an old music joke: Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Knock knock. Who’s there? Philip Glass.
The composer’s reputation for repetition is deserved in the case of “Orphee,” his opera based on Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film. The movie’s script was itself inspired by the ancient myth of Orpheus and served as the source material for the opera’s French libretto. Musical repetition naturally extends from the film’s obsession with mirrors.
Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Orphee,” which opened Saturday at the Benedum Center, further explored the opera’s intellectual and aesthetic dimensions.
The story centers on the poet Orphee, a national icon past his prime.
A younger poet, Cegeste, is killed following a brawl at a cafe. Orphee follows his dead rival’s patron, the Princess, to her chalet, and later discovers she is Death. What follows are the fluid movements between our world and the underworld, as Orphee negotiates the competing aspects of his life: the Princess; his pregnant wife, Eurydice and his poetry.
Frequent use of unusual meters (10/8, 7/8) lends the music a rocking character, while vocal lines jump out from or attach themselves to the pul-sing texture. The orchestra, conducted by music director An-tony Walker, skillfully deployed those lopsided meters to achieve an unsettled, disturbing quality. Duets rather than arias anchor the music; it never reaches grand emotional heights, save for the duet between the Princess and Orphee in the second act.
Baritone Matthew Worth gave a strong performance in the title role. His attractive, dark timbre was bolstered by a full, consistent vibrato. He paired well vocally with Eurydice, played by soprano Caroline Worra, who had a ringing, golden-flecked tone and cutting volume. Their characters’ relationship, however, was less convincing.
Orphee is meant to seem, on the one hand, annoyed and suffocated by his wife and, on the other hand, drawn by her. Here, the two appeared less tormented and more apathetic.
Mr. Worth had better chemistry with the Princess, portrayed by Heather Buck, making her Pittsburgh Opera debut. The soprano was a commanding presence and successfully captured the character’s seductive nature, but she never settled into the core of her voice. Her sound was sometimes breathy, with an inconsistent attack and vibrato.
Playing the chauffeur Heur-tebise, tenor Jonathan Boyd had a sweet, bright tone and was appropriately sympathetic, the most likable character of the lot. As Orphee’s poet friend, Adam Fry had an attractive but soft voice. Resident artists Daniel Curran, Phillip Gay, Samatha Korbey and Alex DeSocio held their own in small or medium-sized roles.
Sam Helfrich’s stage direction, originally created for an Orpheus-themed season at Glimmerglass Opera, was thought-provoking and visually arresting. Consider those mirrors, through which the characters move to get to the underworld. To achieve that effect here, doppelganger supernumeraries walked in opposite — or not quite opposite — directions of the main characters, in a device that was aesthetically and intellectually satisfying. Some decisions were less convincing.
The cream-colored set by Andrew Lieberman was a landscape of horizontal and vertical lines. Sleek furniture and lighting, often in pairs, elevated the mirror motif. While different spaces existed on the stage, the same set functioned as a cafe, an office, houses or no man’s land. Suspending disbelief for the sake of an unusual staging mechanism effectively deepened the opera’s ambiguity.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com or 412-263-1750.