“Orpheus and Eurydice”
Paris Opera Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
July 20, 2012
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Popkin
Paris Opera Ballet concluded its ten day visit to New York with a rendition of Pina Bausch’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” that demonstrated both the range of the company’s repertory and sensitivity of its stagings. As Bausch’s “Orpheus” hewed closely to Gluck’s opera – at least until the end, POB’s performance was faithful to the style and spirit of Bausch. This was a contemporary realization of remarkable delicacy for a company that was also highly classical in “Giselle” earlier last week.
Officially styled a “Dance-Opera in Four Scenes,” this “Orpheus” combined dance and opera by having the principal singers each paired with a principal dancer on stage. The vocal leads were Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Orpheus, Yun Jung Choi as Eurydice, and Zoe Nicolaidou as Love. They doubled Stéphane Bullion, Marie-Agnès Gillot and Muriel Zusperreguy as the leading dancers. Carrying the vocal load, Wesseling sang with beautiful modulation all evening: soft in the recitatives, yet heroically projecting in the great solo airs. The other two singers were just as effective. But even more striking was the fact that all the vocalists moved well enough on stage to blend successfully into Bausch’s scenario.
The production’s look was spare, restrained and neo-classical. As the opera has only three voices (Love appears briefly in the first act – her sections in the final act were cut by Bausch) the stage action remained starkly simple and organized. The singers, all in long black dresses, harmonized visually with the leading dancers. The chorus of 27 singers remained in the orchestra pit; the corps de ballet of 23 dancers onstage created a series of simple yet evocative tableaux. Thomas Hengelbrock led the orchestra and the chorus was provided by the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir directed by Choir Master Detlef Bratschke.
The ballet has four scenes, “Mourning,” “Violence,” “Peace,” and “Death.” (The opera’s four acts are set in “Eurydice’s Tomb,” “The gates of Erebus,” “Elysium,” and “A Cavern Leading Out of the Realm of the Dead”). The story was that of the familiar myth except, as in Gluck, the role of Eurydice was more substantial. However, departing from the operatic scenario, Love did not reappear in the penultimate scene to revive Eurydice. Bausch substituted Orpheus’ death in dumb show for Gluck’s happy ending.
Bausch’s choreography and the stage designs by Rolf Borzik resulted in a mise-en-scène at once surrealist and minimalist. In the opening tomb scene, Eurydice was impassive in a far corner, seated atop a tall chair, while the stage was draped with white fabric to create a bare architectural box, extending upward to the flies. Orpheus appeared stripped except for flesh colored shorts, and executed tense solos full of longing and constraint before falling prostrate in front of a magic circle, ringed with laurel boughs, perhaps Eurydice’s grave.
A corps de ballet of barefoot women danced in a plastic mass. Dressed in long black mourning robes with semi-transparent bodices, they wound and unwound skeins of white gauze, creating shrouds for the dead. Love entered bearing a raven in her hands. Delicately placing the bird in a Plexiglas box at the rear of the stage, she chalked a path to Elysium on the floor and Orpheus followed her to the Elysian Fields.
The curtain fell and when it rose again, the scene for Violence framed the stage with a low, white fabric barrier – just high enough to see over – on all three sides. In contrast to the Singspiel that ended the first scene, the score was suddenly orchestral, with pulsing crescendos of horns. An unused set of tall chairs (like the one Eurydice was seated upon at her tomb) was stage right and long strings extended from them to the dancers, who whirled about violently. Dressed in white gowns, the women were presumably the Eumenides (who people the stage in this scene in the opera), weaving the strings of fate. Blind, they moved in short, staccato phrases, arrested by their lack of sight. Three men in black butcher’s aprons were in charge - the undertakers of Hell or the three-headed Cerberus. They unwound the shrouds of corpses and the first to arrive was that of Eurydice, who departed for the underworld before Orpheus arrived.
When he did enter, a violent dance followed in deep, angular movement and Graham-like, compressed pliés. The women surrounded Orpheus, feeling for him (and each other) with their hands. After a single danseuse swept upstage, carrying the strings of fate away, he gained permission to pass. The ensemble resumed its infernal movement, the dancers striking themselves repeatedly in the thigh, falling and getting back up again in staccato patterns, while the orchestra thundered out its driving scherzo. It looked like a scene out of Dante. Again the curtain briefly fell.
Until then the stage was brightly and evenly lit, but the next scene – Peace – was dim, extraordinarily lyrical and formed the crux of the production. Intended to be dance music, it’s traditionally titled the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” Balanchine used it for “Chaconne” and in response to this music Bausch also allowed herself to be balletic. Repeatedly lifting the women’s arms upward en couronne and using a few pirouettes and lyrical lifts, she set the dancers free and yearning in reaches for heaven, alternating with deep backbends, with the women now dressed in long, pastel, draped chiffon, again with semi-transparent bodices.
POB’s dancers ate the material up, moving fluidly in a rectangular space casually framed by a series of banquettes and the suggestion of a low parterre of roses. Several men, stripped bare like Orpheus, either sat on the banquettes or joined in a series of exquisite ensemble dances. Yet these merely led to a powerfully moving recognition scene between the leading couple. After solos by Eurydice and Orpheus – each to a major recitative by their singer – the full contingent of women and men re-entered and eventually moved downstage left, to the very edge of the audience, in a mass, leaving the rear of the stage empty. Eurydice was suddenly there and you immediately turned your eyes to her at the same moment she turned her face to Orpheus, whom she recognized for the first time, as he stood looking towards the wings, impassive, downstage left. Relief etched on her features, she advanced, as if attracted to him by magnetism, to the slow cadence of the music, reaching forward to find his hand before the two exited, looking onward, as the curtain fell. The impact of this scene, and the brilliance of its realization, would alone have justified both Bausch and POB in choreographing and staging the opera.
The final scene was again brightly lit (although in Gluck’s scenario it’s a dark cavern) and portrayed the fatal denouement. Orpheus tries to lead Eurydice onward, always covering his eyes, attempting not to look at her, even during turns. Dressed now in a long red gown, Gillot danced a brilliant solo full of anguish, remonstrating with Bullion in an absolute failure to understand why Orpheus will not turn and meet her gaze. The admonition “not to look back” is interpreted by her as “not to look at Eurydice” and she cannot bear it.
Eurydice in Ovid – and other classical sources for the myth - is a secondary character. It’s Orpheus’s grief, as he loses and attempts to rescue her, that’s the story. But Gluck (anticipating feminism) and Bausch as she follows his scenario, puts Eurydice at the heart of things; and it’s her inability to bear Orpheus’ failure to relate to her that provokes the fatal outcome. Unable any longer to bear the demonstrations of her pain, Orpheus finally embraces her and her death swiftly follows. As Orpheus held her dying, the two singers also turned to face each other. Yun Jung, doubling Gillot, then slowly crumpled to the floor; before Bullion tenderly lowered Gillot’s body slumping in his arms so that the dancer lay, Christ-like, dead across the singer’s prostrate form.
A major coup of stagecraft followed when Bullion immediately moved upstage left and knelt with his back to the audience for the rest of this climactic scene, allowing Wesseling to take over the action. Singing the long, gorgeous air that dominates the opera’s conclusion (“ Oh fatal silence/Now all is lost/Now forever . . . “), her voice rose and fell as she knelt over the fallen Eurydice, reprise following reprise in the song until, extending her arms, Wesseling lifted Gillot’s prostrate form into a sitting position, embracing and holding her for the ending refrain.
But there was no Deus ex Machina. Eurydice was dead and a long pause followed for the dumb show of Orpheus’ death. The butchers’ men from the second scene re-entered, lifted Bullion from his kneeling position in what looked like a deposition from the cross, and placed him next to Eurydice. With the score turning again liturgical for the final Hymn of Love, the opera ended musically as it began. Bausch’s choreography here also briefly reprised her first plastic dance for the mourning women. All silently filed out across the rear of the stage as the curtain fell to the orchestra’s last chords.
Bullion was deeply moving in the final scene, his eloquent body conveying deep emotion. All evening, though a classical dancer (and, after all, an étoile of the Opera), he managed the pressurized Bausch choreography as if born and bred to it. From the moment Gillot began to dance in the third scene – moving on an extremely large scale, pliant in her body and expressive in her flowing gestures - you recognized the presence of a major interpretive talent.
Ending POB’s first visit to New York since 1996, the performance underscored the company’s range and rendered temporarily moot the ongoing debate about whether, under Lefèvre, POB has become too interested in modern dance and trashy contemporary ballet commissions. Bausch’s production, clinging tightly to its 18th century original, is very contemporary but is far removed from conscious modernism and its search for novelty. Its artistic air is rather that of the Comédie Française in its post World War II settings of Racine. (POB dances Ohad Naharin and Wayne McGregor, by way of contrast, all more or less dedicated, at least some of the time, to novelty for its own sake). Using its immense resources to obtain the right singers and choir, to fabricate the costumes and mount the sets, the company then trained its dancers in Bausch’s style and delivered an artistic knockout blow. How many other ballet companies would have risked this, or could have accomplished it? The answer is exactly none. Thank you POB, don’t be so long in coming back.
All Photos by Stephanie Berger of the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of “Orpheus and Eurydice”:
Top: “Peace” - Marie-Agnès Gillot, Stéphane Bullion and corps de ballet in recognition scene.
Middle: Marie-Agnès Gillot, Stéphane Bullion in “Mourning.”
Bottom: (l. to r.) Marie-Agnès Gillot (in red), Stéphane Bullion, as “dancer” Eurydice and Orpheus; Maria Riccarda Wesseling (mezzo-soprano standing in black) and Yun Jung Choi (soprano, kneeling in black) as “singer” Orpheus and Eurydice in last act scene of “Death.”