Philip Glass: Les Enfants Terribles
Orange Mountain Music

Preceded by the chamber operas Orphée (1993) and La Belle et la Bête (1994), Les Enfants Terribles (1996) concludes Glass's Cocteau trilogy. Though the first two conjoined musical performances to Cocteau's films, the final installment pairs dance with music, and does so distinctively by putting both dancers and singers onstage and by restricting the musical presentation to four singers (soprano Christine Arand, bass-baritone Philip Cutlip, tenor Hal Cazalet, and mezzo-soprano Valerie Komar) and three pianists (Nelson Padgett, Eleanor Sandresky, and Glass himself). Like the other two operas, Les Enfants Terribles distills Cocteau's belief in the transcendent power of imagination and creativity into musical form, although this time transformation leads not to love and transcendence but death. Retreating into isolation after their mother's death, brother and sister Paul and Lise become consumed by wild fantasies (which they deem “playing the Game”) with destruction the result. In the composer's words, “If Orphée is Cocteau's tale of transcendence and La Belle et la Bête his romance, then Les Enfants Terribles is his tragedy.” The music convincingly conveys that essence with its largely reflective and melancholy approach, though there are occasional moments of passionate intensity (“They Lived Their Dream,” “She Took the Path,” “Are You in Love, Agathe?”). Graceful calm pervades “Two Halves of the Same Body” and an affecting sadness shadows “Lost”; appropriately, there's a funereal quality to “Paul Is Dying” that's particularly lovely.

By opera standards, it's a succinct work with twenty scenes totaling 91 minutes. It's also more homogenous than La Belle et la Bête (which featured contrasting sound palettes to match the two main characters) though the potentially limiting singular voice of the piano is compensated for by rich and sinuous writing. Alternately aggressive and lyrical, the oft-repetitive music is instantly recognizable as Glass's. As with much of his material, the music at times sounds familiar, as if he's transplanting material from one piece to another; the ascending piano patterns in “Cocoon of Shawls,” for example, call to mind Glass's score to The Hours (though, given the soundtrack's 2002 date of composition, in this case it would be The Hours that's doing the plundering). Still, there's no denying the beautiful writing of the graceful “Les Enfants Terribles Overture” and the sombre “A Terrible Interlude,” with Glass's talent for lyrical melodies amply showcased in both. Plus there are subtle moments of distinction, like the lovely ascending lines that alternate between pianists in the pensive instrumental “The Somnambulist.”

The work is sung in French though the occasionally overwrought narrative delivery is in English (and, strangely, the narrator's text differs dramatically from the booklet to the release itself). Different vocal types (soprano vs. mezzo-soprano, tenor vs. bass-baritone) generate strong contrast and, given the amount of vocal space allotted to Arand and Cutlip (as the central characters Lise and Paul), it's good to hear how well their voices complement one another. The coupling of Cutlip's bass-baritone with Arand's soprano in “One Wheel Spinning” is especially memorable, and enhanced even more by a delicate piano backing. Best of all, Glass opts to restrainedly alternate rather than overlap singers, making for an understated as opposed to oppressive vocal dimension.

Does Les Enfants Terribles represent a major evolution in Glass's composing style? Not really, though it's a more than credible addition to his ever-growing body of work (it's puzzling, however, that it's only now being released when the recording was finished as of May 1997). Will it satisfy Glass aficionados? Definitely. Anyone unaware of how much Glass's music has moved on from the ultra-minimalism of his early days would be shocked to hear the degree of difference between his music then and now.

July 2005