N. C. Opera's gripping, imaginative production of "Les Enfants Terribles" by Philip Glass again proves that its finest presentations are contemporary works. Like Britten's "Turn of the Screw" last season, "Enfants" displays the highest levels of creativity and musicality, immensely satisfying in ways the company's more traditional opera stagings rarely achieve.
It's the disturbing tale of Paul and his sister Lise, whose close bonds create their own special world. But when Paul suddenly falls for Agathe, Lise pushes her towards Gérard, Lise's would-be suitor, changing all their lives forever.
Glass is widely known for his driving rhythms and mesmerizing repetitions, often quite challenging in his early, symbolic operas. For this 1996 work, the music is much more melodic and immediate, employing French dialog for the vocal lines directly from the 1950 Jean Cocteau film.
Glass adds some unique elements to "Enfants." The orchestration is for three pianos, giving the music a lush but crisply percussive sound world. It's also written for both singers and dancers.
Robert Weiss, artistic director of Carolina Ballet, astutely matches a dancer to each singer, creating doppelgängers that elucidate the characters' psychological states. Sometimes moving in tandem, sometimes in mirror images, sometimes on their own, the performers are beautifully set off by Jeff A. R. Jones' ever-changing scenic designs, enhanced by Roz Fulton's haunting projections and Ross Kolman's moodily atmospheric lighting. Conductor Wilson Southerland, playing piano along with Spencer Blank and Tad Hardin, gives the score great energy and lyricism.
Timothy McDevitt uses his well-rounded baritone to give Paul appropriate aloofness and introspection, equaled by Gabor Kapin's intensely focused dance version. Soprano Jessica Cates finds the right insouciance for Lise, greatly enlarged by Lara O'Brien's manic spins and joyful leaps. Mezzo Nicole Rodin and dancer Lindsay Purrington each characterize Agathe with warmth and innocence. As Gérard, tenor Philippe Pierce has few singing lines but keeps the piece moving with the character's poetic English narration, while Yevgeny Shlapko dances him with quiet strength.
"Enfants" is so startlingly fresh and engagingly theatrical that minor staging and musical quibbles are easily swept aside. The production is recommended to first-timers and aficionados alike as something neither will likely have ever experienced.