Almost 40 years after its première, Pina Bausch's daring reinterpretation of the myth of Orpheus still captivates audiences worldwide. Reinvigorated by Thomas Hengelbrock's fascinating musical approach (it was Gérard Mortier who brought the two artists together in 2005 for the remake of this production in Paris), Bausch's tanzoper is one of the most accomplished attempts to create a contemporary tragedy, an enthralling reflection on human boundaries.

<i>Orpheus and Eurydice</i> © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Orpheus and Eurydice
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Orpheus was the first operatic character. The story of a lyre player who opened the gates of Tartarus with the power of his music, defying the natural order to bring Eurydice back from the realm of the dead was no doubt the perfect embodiment for Monteverdi's revolution. It is not by chance that 150 years later Gluck also chose it to consolidate his own dramatic and musical reform: Orpheus' resistance to accept Eurydice's fate represents the utmost human challenge and his eventual victory is a moving token of the confidence on the transcendental power of music.

Pina Bausch's adaptation of Gluck's opera is one of the most radical subversions of the original material that can be seen on stage nowadays (why it is considered an uncontroversial classic while other less radical proposals usually meet audiences' stark opposition remains a mystery). In Gluck's original story the ill-fated couple is finally reunited and love triumphs over death in a buoyant happy ending that distorts the natural path to catharsis. Bausch decided to cut the final scene and, after Orpheus' lament, the orchestra returns to the mournful first scene of the opera, which now preludes his own death. Amore's tempting intervention in Act I had interrupted Orpheus' healing mourning with a chimerical promise of reversibility. But this is also the force that starts the whole process from static sorrow to dynamic and violent acceptance.

The journey that takes Orpheus to the abyss proves the only way to find peace and, finally, to learn to die without Eurydice. “Che farò senza Euridice”, one of the most beautifully contradictory arias ever composed, thus becomes a sad explosion of infinite comfort, a peaceful end-of-journey that oddly parallels Isolde's Liebestod. The two lovers are truly reunited, not by magical resurrection, but through the individual, serene understanding of death. Bausch's Orpheus, contrary to what might seem at first blush, is not then about the triumph of death over love but about the painful but calm understanding of loss and life.

© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

All this reinterpretation is presented on stage through a perfect, smooth integration of voice and gesture. Contrary to Bausch's Iphigénie, which premièred one year before this Orpheus, singers and dancers share the stage with complementary dramatic codes, in a mesmerising theatrical dialogue. As in so many other of her choreographies, pain and fear are explicitly portrayed in Bausch's choreography. She does not shy away from exploring the expression of suffering and bluntly recognises it as the only axis to build a true human exploration. The heartbreaking duo between Orpheus and Eurydice on their painful way out of Elysium looked like a blind dance of spectres. The effect of Bausch's choreography is enhanced by the intense simplicity of Rolf Borzik's set design. It is striking how the frightful peace of Elysium in Act II and its uncanny, ghastly atmosphere was achieved with so few stage elements.

An unexpected effect of this combination of dance and opera was the clash between dancers' and singers' gender identities. Orpheus' role was originally composed for a castrato, later adapted to the French vocality of haute-contre (a French high classical tenor), and sung in the 19th century by mezzosoprano Pauline Viardot or by tenor Adolphe Nourritt, among others. This fascinating vocal history is shaded by a choice of dancing roles that is unrepentantly classic and stresses the physical features of men and women, a decision that must be understood in the light of Bausch's choreographies from those years, such as The Rite of Spring, which were profoundly gender-marked.

Hengelbrock's brilliant work with the superb Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble masterfully intensified what was seen on stage. The Ensemble's dry and austere, almost bony sound created a constant illusion of listening to the score for the first time. The severe and slow tempi, the mystical energy that pervaded the whole performance, the German translation of the libretto (based on the original Italian, while the musical edition was a free adaptation of the 1774 Paris version), and the medieval, alluring colour of the voices of the Balthasar-Neumann Choir, all contributed to a fresh and surprising reinvention of Gluck's score, almost transformed into a Bach oratorio.

© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Mezzo soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling was just the Orpheus that this production needed. Her unique and warm voice colour, her detailed and solemn phrasing and her breathtaking “Che farò senza Euridice” contributed to an unforgettable performance. Stéphane Bullion, her dancing double, played his role skilfully and with amazing ease, but his rendition lacked the profundity that inspired the rest of the show. Yun Jung Choi's was an insufficient counterpart as Eurydice, although her light timbre and her distant interpretation matched the otherworldly nature of the role. On the other hand, Marie-Agnès Gillot, a dancer of stern gesture and elegant stage presence, was superb as Eurydice.

Landmark dance choreographies tend to stay in the repertoire for decades, but the revival of this production goes beyond the mere admiration for an exceptional work. Its surprising comeback to Orpheus' initial sorrow closes a heroic cycle, a tragic journey in which the audience is led to a deeper understanding of death. Catharsis is not achieved through a happy ending brought by a deus ex machina, but through the naked acceptance of loss. Maybe this is meant to be the crux of Pina Bausch's immense artistic legacy.

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