Omaha World-Herald Review: Les Enfants Terribles

Review: Strange plot, great production values make 'Les Enfants Terribles' worthwhile
By Betsie Freeman / World-Herald staff writer Apr 6, 2019 Updated Apr 6, 2019

The music is modern yet melodic, even in its urgency and its occasional dissonance. It’s mostly, but not always, accessible.

The story is creepy yet fascinating — about a brother and sister who are way too close, the weird psychological game they play and the carnage it causes for all involved.

Despite the fact that it made me work a little to keep track of the plot (did I say it was a little off-putting?) and absorb the unusual genre — a dance opera — I came perilously close to loving “Les Enfants Terribles,” the first production in this year’s Opera Omaha ONE Festival.

Going in, I wasn’t sure that I would like it, and, as the twisted story unfolded, I wasn’t sure that I should.

But everything about the production, directed by James Darrah, was first class: the staging, the stark white set, the stellar vocal work, the unusual and beautiful costumes and especially the innovative dancing.

If you know anything about iconic composer Philip Glass before you go to this 90-minute show, you will recognize his style after the first few notes.

He drives home the same motifs and tempos over and over, yet the music is fresh and surprising throughout. He knows how to ramp up drama and suspense. Three pianists — Maureen Zoltek, Eric Andries and Bryan Stanley — on three grand pianos provide the accompaniment under conductor David Bloom in his Opera Omaha debut. They all got a workout, and all were up to it.

The score, sung in French, is a huge challenge for singers because their parts are a counterpoint to the pianists — the accompaniment rarely offers a hint about the vocal lines. Theo Hoffman as Paul, the brother; Vanessa Becerra as Elisabeth, the sister; Adrian Kramer as their friend, Gérard, who also acts as narrator; and Naomi Louisa O’Connell as Agathe, another friend, didn’t need any prompts. All had strong, superb and true operatic voices and all were well-prepared, though Becerra and Kramer were especially fine.

It was unusual for an opera because it had as much dancing and instrumental music as it did singing, and it didn’t have the arias you find in more traditional opera. But Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s choreography propelled the plot as much as the words do in classic pieces. At times that call for confusion or conflict, the moves are jerky and even feverish. At calmer moments — certain times when the dancers serve as alter egos for the characters, for instance — the dancers are more fluid as they mirror the actors. Clever lighting that casts the shadows of the dancers on a white backdrop emphasizes this even more. At those points, words aren’t necessary.

Dancers Shauna Davis, Lindsey Matheis and Charbel Rohayem deserve mention for executing the cutting-edge choreography.

As you probably could figure out, the plot made me cringe at times, notably when it veered dangerously close to incest. It definitely didn’t have a redemptive resolution, though some characters fared far better than others. But I found myself leaning forward with anticipation throughout the show, so even though I’m not sure that I would have chosen Jean Cocteau’s short story for a stage production, my attention never waned.

I was surprised how much I liked it, but I suspect that I may not have been as enthusiastic if the production had been in lesser hands. No doubt, some may not be able to get over the grim, sometimes shocking story. A couple walked out after about 20 minutes Friday night.

I’m glad I stuck with it. Opera Omaha helped me step out of my comfort zone, and it was a leap worth taking.