Orphée Rises Again: A Comparative Analysis of Orphée (Cocteau 1950; Glass 1993) Based on Settings and Characters

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Minimalist music might be characterized as non-narrative, but Orphée (1993), an opera by Philip Glass based on Cocteau’s eponymous 1950 film, shows that the narrativity of the libretto also affects the music of the opera. This particular analysis shows that both setting and characterization are not only expressed by means of the libretto, but also via the music. With regard to setting, it is clear that Glass modelled his music on Cocteau’s setting, but it is inevitably less specific. Still, Cocteau’s trope of parallel opposites (hell and mortal world) is clearly represented in the musical lines of both singers and orchestra. Regarding characterization, la Princesse – the personification of death – takes the lead in both opera and film, which is in sharp contrast with both the Orpheus myth and the Gluck opera (Orfeo ed Eurydice (1774)), from which a musical line is quoted by both Cocteau and Glass. In fact, Glass uses Gluck’s “The Dance of the Blessed Spirits” as a minimal motif to herald la Princesse’s coming in the first act. Other characters, such as Heurtebise and Orphée are also musically underscored, especially the latter’s stagnation in a forward-moving poetic environment. Eurydice’s role, however, is diminished even more in the opera compared to the film. Thus, in a very distinct style, Glass underscores certain narrative traits by means of his operatic music by using minimalist techniques.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)d1-20
Number of pages20
JournalJournal for Literary and Intermedial Crossings
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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