Two years after her untimely death, the world is still celebrating of one of the most influential figures of contemporary dance – Pina Bausch. In addition to the recent world tour of her works by her own Tanztheater Wuppertal, her work lives on through a revival of her 1975 Orpheus and Eurydice at the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, featuring the Paris Opera Ballet and the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chor. The US premiere of this rarely performed piece was met with ecstatic ovations this Friday.
The story of Orpheus, who loses his bride Eurydice on their wedding day and travels to the underworld to retrieve her, has always been one of the most popular and powerful subjects on the operatic stage. Not surprisingly, it exists in many variants, both as a drama and in its classical sources. Monteverdi’s original ending for his 1607 L’Orfeo, for example, has quite a different ending than the lieto fine we have come to know today. The singing shepherd Orpheus takes up the company of men after losing the only woman he loved, and eventually is torn to shreds by Bacchus’ female revelers, the Maenads.
Gluck had his own take on the Orpheus myth, several, in fact. His 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice was so popular that he eventually adapted it into several languages and in versions that accommodate a variety of voice types. In none of his scores, however, does Orpheus go without his beloved. Though he contemplates suicide, Amor enters to stop him and revives the (twice) dead Eurydice.
In Pina’s reinterpretation of Gluck’s score, the story ends before Amor can save the day. Rather, her “dance-opera” divides the action into four scenes, ending with “Death.” Alienation becomes the focus of the myth, rather than the hero’s quest. By ending the drama with the conflict unresolved, the audience is bereft of any catharsis and is forced to internalize the alienation felt by all of the characters.
In Orpheus’ lament, known best by its Italian incipit “Chiamo il mio ben così,” he cries out for his love, yet hears no response. Pina’s choreography had étoile dancer Stéphane Bullion alternate between lyrical gestures that repeat for each of the aria’s three strophes, and abrupt spasms in the accompanied recitatives that interrupt them. Though initially the choreography for each strophe appears pretty and pastoral, by the third strophe, the repeated movement is little more than a manic ritual that distracts Orpheus (Maria Riccarda Wesseling) from the empitiness of his existential loss. At the end of the scene, Bullion’s glistening frame appeared as gaunt as a Giacometti.
In the second scene, titled “Violence,” Pina brilliantly depicts the alienation of the tormented “shades” in the Underworld. Through the simplest of means, we understand both the sin and the punishment of several dancers. A glutton, for example, claws hopelessly for an apple suspended from a string for nearly the entire scene. Another is burdened with a stone which represents the weight of her guilt. Others are physically tossed around the stage by three men in black butchers’ aprons, which appear first almost as the three-headed Cerberus guarding the gates of Hades, and then later, as Orpheus’ executioners, in the finale scene.
The incredible anxiety produced within the spectator is immediately assuaged in the following scene, “Peace.” A women’s ensemble dressed in light pink – the only color other than red in this otherwise black-and-white production – performs a delicate dance before Eurydice emerges for a solo. Marie-Agnès Gillot, the only étoile dancer who also appeared in the 2008 revival at the Opéra National de Paris, performed remarkably.
Perhaps the most effective piece of choreography in the entire piece, however, is also the simplest. In the final scene, “Death,” Eurydice dies a second time, after forcing Orpheus to gaze upon her, thereby breaking the promise he made to Hades that he would not do so until they left the Underworld. Eurydice collapses and lies arms open atop soprano Yun Jung-Choi, doubling as Eurydice – physically reminding us that this is indeed her second death. Wesseling kneels at the double corpse and sings “Che farò senza Euridice” as Bullion crouches and weeps in the corner. Throughout the aria, which is the opera’s most emotionally intense moment, the stage is completely still. The stasis in this scene seems to foreshadow Pina's later more extreme experiments which some would criticize as hardly dance at all.
Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, whose repertoire ranges from Scarlatti to Stravinsky, was superb in leading the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chor. The choir, directed by Detlef Bratschke, was a particular thrill to hear. Harpist Marta Graziolino gave a sensitive performance of the solos in the second scene (Act II of the opera), as did first flute Michael Schmidt-Casdorff in his solos. In fact, at times, the music coming from the pit was more affecting than the sounds on stage. In a production that emphasizes the choreographic aspects of Gluck’s work, this is perhaps no huge fault. However, in my opinion, soprano Zoe Nicolaidou, in the role of Amor, was the most musically pleasing soloist, despite the fact that Wesseling appeared as Orpheus in the aforementioned 2008 production.
While overall both the dancing and music were of high quality, the ovations at the end of the evening were more for Pina than for the performers, as the choreographer has become a household name after Wim Wender’s recent documentary. In contrast with Pina’s later works of Tanztheater, which are less digestible and more controversial, Orpheus offers an accessible way to appreciate one of modern dance’s most influential figures. For those who missed the US premiere, the earlier 2008 revial was luckily released on DVD in 2010, and makes a welcome addition to the libraries of dance and opera lovers alike.