Sasha Waltz’s new production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo saw a fusion of sound and movement at the Muziektheater Amsterdam, with dancers and singers twining together almost indistinguishably. Dance company Sasha Waltz and Guests collaborated with Dutch National Opera to produce a fresh and atmospheric production. The intimate scale of the Dutch National Opera and Ballet always allows interesting theatre to take precedence over grand spectacle: designer Alexander Schwarz’s spare, elegant set of wood and water made full use of this intimate focus to create a mystical and believable otherworld, disconcertingly like and unlike our own.

Georg Nigl (Orfeo) © Monika Ritterhaus
Georg Nigl (Orfeo)
© Monika Ritterhaus

The deceptively simple set was a tall, blonde wooden frame of smooth surfaces and clean lines, with a floor sloping down towards the audience on either side of which the Freiburger BarockConsort sat barefoot, continuo and strings on one side, larger continuo group and brass instruments on the other. Tall wooden panels within a frame were at the back of the floor and revolved to present wooden doors to the audience, or, when turned sideways on, to suggest a temple with classical columns, through which nymphs and shepherds slipped gracefully.

The vigorous drumroll and the raw, almost barbaric boldness of the historical trumpets and cornets in the opening ritornello plunged us swiftly into a strange world of passion and celebration. The entrance of La Musica was preceded by a dancer, barefoot in a simple blue dress, whose repeating sequences evoked animals at play in the wild – the
leaping of a deer, a flash of bird’s wing in the crook of the arm. Her movements, and the free flowing movements of the dancers who later followed her onto the stage swiftly created an atmosphere of semi-wildness, a dangerous, innocent, sensual world, where the borders between the animal and the human; the dead and the living are porous and uncertain.

The wedding scene of Orfeo and Euridice was exhilaratingly staged. Dancers and singers mingled, shifting constantly between naturalistic movement and dance, while the dance itself shifted between the flowing movements of nymphs in a woodland glade and the raunchy booty-shaking of a good party where the alcohol is flowing. Clearly growing increasingly intoxicated, Orfeo and Euridice chased each other delightedly around the stage. The wedding as portrayed by Waltz and company was a joyously sexy, celebratory affair, with Euridice whirling uninhibitedly between male and female friends then sensually presenting an apple in her mouth to Orfeo who bit into the other side, and led her around the stage both joined by the apple. Orfeo and Euridice were shown as deeply in love and full of mutual desire, which brought warmth and depth to Euridice’s character, sometimes reduced to a cypher, an image of happiness lost. Here she was a flesh and blood woman full of agency and happiness, making the sudden news of her death impossible and shocking.

Freiburger BarockConsort, dancers Sasha Waltz & Guests © Monika Ritterhaus
Freiburger BarockConsort, dancers Sasha Waltz & Guests
© Monika Ritterhaus

Waltz’s subtle and emotional production brought the classical roots of the story to the fore. In Orfeo’s journey to the underworld, the River Styx was represented by smooth water on the stage behind the wooden frame. We saw Caronte the ferryman moving slowly and hypnotically through the water, fending off the lost souls crowding his boat,  with his oar. Throughout the scene, Caronte, sung with gravitas by Douglas Williams,
remained in the water behind the wooden frame, so that we glimpsed him and the forbidden world of the dead elusively through the columns of the set. Where the wedding scene had been characterised by warm golden sunlight and flowers gathered by Euridice and her friends, the underworld was shrouded in grey mist, with a huge, pale moon glowing indistinctly in the distance. All movement here was stylised, with Luciana Mancini’s glowing-voiced, languishing Proserpina and Konstantin Wolff’s chocolatey-toned Plutone engaging in a sensual physical duet, and Euridice being rolled and carried by other dead souls.

Georg Nigl (Orfeo) and Anna Lucia Richter (Euridice) © Monika Ritterhaus
Georg Nigl (Orfeo) and Anna Lucia Richter (Euridice)
© Monika Ritterhaus

Anna Lucia Richter, perfectly cast in the roles of both Euridice and La Musica, gave a show stealing performance, her bright, supple voice imparting an impressive wealth of emotional colour to the role of Euridice. The demanding staging saw her dancing, rolling on the floor and being picked up and carried by other cast members, all of which she accomplished with authoritative physical grace, and undiminished vocal ease. The opera – and this production – is interestingly balanced vocally, with the first half dominated by the female roles: La Musica, Euridice and the Messaggiera who delivers the news of Euridice’s death in the famous lament, delivered here with powerful conviction by Charlotte Hellekant. Hellekant’s richly beautiful voice throbbed with passion, gripping the audience. I found her vibrato in the high notes interfered with my perception of Monteverdi’s dissonances, but in the middle and lower registers was a vehicle for intense emotional communication.

The second half was devoted to Orfeo’s journey in and out of the underworld, and saw baritone Georg Nigl give the standout performance of the evening, with a musically intelligent and emotionally harrowing performance. His scene with Charon at the River Styx and his Act V lament “Questi i campi di Tracia” (surely one of the most beautiful set pieces for male voice in all opera) showed the full range of his formidable talents, from impressive agility in Monteverdi’s taxing fioritura, to a visceral howl of rage and grief, as he rejects all womanhood as unworthy of the memory of Euridice. In a hint of the depth of Waltz's understanding of the body of Orpheus myth, a group of women, enraged by Orfeo's lament, picked him up and cast him bodily into the water, recalling Orpheus' death at the hands of the Maenads, not mentioned in the opera.

The Vocalconsort Berlin made a beautiful, rich pure sound in the choruses, and also provided the soloists for the minor roles of nymphs and shepherds. The sweet and light voices of the soloists had charm, although the more athletic, operatic technique of the principal soloists stood up better to the physical demands of this staging. Under the musical direction of Pablo Heras Casado, the Freiburger BarockConsort created a pure, energised, flexible sound world, that well supported Waltz’s vision. The opera ended with not only the dancers and singers mingled once more, but many of the instrumentalists somehow caught up in the general dancing on stage as well. A celebratory relief to end a powerful emotional journey.