Trying to explain Philip Glass’s 1996 opera Les Enfants Terribles is like trying to explain an impressionist painting: one can discuss the title, the medium, and the colors but never truly do the piece justice. Everyone who sees it also takes different things away and interprets it differently. Such is the case for North Carolina Opera ‘s final performance of this opera based on Jean Cocteau’s 1929 novel. (My colleague Jeffrey Rossman paints his own compelling portrait in his review of the show’s opening night.)

Presented in Fletcher Opera Theater in downtown Raleigh, part of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts complex, Les Enfants featured spoken dialogue in English and songs/arias sung in French, with translations projected in supertitles that interacted creatively with the moving set pieces. Because of the seamless integration of dance by members of Carolina Ballet and the lovely scenic design of Jeff A.R. Jones, the opera was given a dreamlike quality, reflecting the “games” that the sibling main characters play, never truly grounded in either reality or fantasy.

Robert Weiss, artistic director of the Carolina Ballet, served as director and choreographer for this production; his influence was highly apparent during the moments when the singers and dancers shared characters. Soprano Jessica Cates and dancer Lara O’Brien shared the character of Lise, sometimes simultaneously, Cates singing what Lise was communicating to another character while O’Brien danced to represent what Lise was feeling in her subconscious. There were beautiful moments when, almost as interludes or dreams for the characters, the dancers alone took the stage and dramatized the love triangles, inner conflicts, and darkening of the plot. The music was also artfully placed with the story and created a seamless background although the music itself was repetitive – especially because of the use of three pianos, rather than instruments with varying tonalities. The music sometimes interacted with the story: strong, heavy chords took the place of Gerard’s knocking on Lise’s door, unexpected silences represented the growing divide between Lise and her brother Paul, and the undulating, repeating scales reflected the tension between reality and fantasy.

Sunday afternoon was the final performance of Les Enfants Terribles, and the hall was completely sold out. The full house may have contributed to the audible reactions of the audience to moments of surprise, horror, and even nervous humor – but everyone on stage, singers and dancers alike, drew the audience in so deeply that the whole room was thoroughly involved in the “game.” A scene of note was when the children’s mother died; this drew surprised and nervous laughter from the audience. In fact, the two other scenes that involved death were either so surprising to the audience or were played up so much that the audience laughed – or, in the case of the abrupt ending of the opera, refrained from applause in slight confusion until they were sure it was over. Although I am unsure of Philip Glass’s original intentions for these scenes, it would appear that these were attempts to make the dark, twisted nature of the opera easier to deal with. The widespread reaction of “Is that it?” after the end scene simply shows how effective the performance was.

It didn’t seem as if the audience really wanted the show to be over, either! Although the brother and sister’s room had a “jealous embrace,” the room and the events it contained were haunting and tantalizing. The cast, however, let out an audible cheer as the curtain closed after bows, signaling the end of a successful run. The cooperation between North Carolina Opera and Carolina Ballet was extremely encouraging, showing an intense passion for art across different specializations that truly make the capital city shine.

North Carolina Opera’s next opera will be Il Trovatore, a classic by Giuseppe Verdi, opening on April 27 in Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh and in Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. For details, click here and here.