Friday, September 17, 2010

Savoir Faire in the Underworld

I have always been intrigued by the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice with the Jean Cocteau film Orphee being one of my all time favourite movies. Full of symbols of deep love, death, mortality, trust and loyalty the film is a visual masterpiece. Although the legends of Orpheus extend way beyond that of Orpheus and Eurydice this is the legend that has garnered more attention than his other exploits. Orpheus and the underworld has been portrayed by many artists, moviemakers and musicians, however I think none did it better than Cocteau and maybe some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists.

We are all familiar with Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to rescue his beloved wife Eurydice on the advice of the nymphs and his subsequent disastrous return

Cocteau with his usual savoir faire updated the legend and set it in modern contemporary times taking liberty with original story to create an incredibly moving and thought provoking piece of cinema. This has now become a classic.

Imagery abounded, for example the underworld’s messengers being portrayed as two motorcyclists with rather menacing attitudes.

Another interpretation of the legend was Portland Opera’s production of Philip Glass’ Orphee. Philip Glass one of the most renowned and often produced composer of modern times, carefully follows the script of Cocteau’s masterpiece to produce an intriguing work. Although not ranking in the same league as Cocteau’s I definitely give it an honourable mention.

The Portland Opera like Cocteau sets this in contemporary times so that the audience can relate better to the situation and may at least feel some sort of empathy for the characters. Placing it in a modern day setting we tend not to think of the ancient origins of the story.

This is an incredibly stylish production that creates parallel universes with the use of mirrors and transparent borders through which the main characters can travel to and from the underworld.

As in the Cocteau production death is represented by La Princesse. Cocteau had her elegantly attired in black, while the Portland Opera has costumed her in white fur, maybe to make her more appealing to our protagonist.

New love may have its passion; however married love brings adds whole new dimension to the passion, so that two almost become a single being, with partners sometimes going to extraordinary lengths to stay together as Orpheus has shown us.


  1. Once again, I'm speechless.
    I love that movie. I have it here on DVD. I don't know the Portland Opera production, what surely is a real pity, but the photos help me a bit to imagine what Glass' intention was.
    Wonderful post.

  2. I saw the Glass piece here in Portland. Visually stunning.

    This was an excellent post. Love your blog!

  3. i just love your posts david, what a brilliant read.

    and the set design looks stunning.

  4. Jean Cocteau was a creative genius in so many different areas. What I admire most are his interior murals in French chapels. Have you seen the chapel in Milly-la-Forêt where he is now buried? The imagery is so unique and beautiful.

    I'm not sure what it is with the French and Italians...the food, the climate, their DNA? They seem predisposed to create masterpieces that boggle the mind and soothe the soul....

    I only know excerpts of the opera from recordings, but would very much liked to have seen the Portland production. Thank you for another very interesting read.

  5. Joe, What can I say??? Maybe we are twins on some level???

    Stephen, That must have been wonderful! I forgot that you were from Portland, so of course you would have seen it. I should have consulted with you first!! LOL

    Jules, Glad you enjoy! I was also intrigued with the set, especially the big photograph on the wall of Orphee.

    Mr SWF, You are so right! Jean Cocteau is one of my mentors. if only to have the creative mind that he had! Ahh the French and the Italians!! Savoir Faire must be in the water!


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