This is in a class by itself: it is the late choreographer Pina Bausch’s vision of Gluck’s Orfeo, originally produced in Germany in 1975. This performance took place at Paris’ Palais Garnier in February, 2008. Bausch presents two sets of protagonists–for each solo singing part there is a solo dancer–with the dancing, of course, taking physical precedence, but with the singers thoroughly engaged as well. You might think this awkward on stage but it is not; like any great choreographer, Bausch knows her space, and furthermore has choreographed minimal movements for the singers to emotionally mirror the dancers’. Just so you know, Bausch eschews Gluck’s happy ending: both main characters remain dead at this performance’s close.
I could describe the entire performance–so rich, so fluid, so moving–but the opening scene will suffice. As the dancing Orfeo, the magnificent, muscled Yann Bridard enters on the right, dressed only in flesh-colored briefs, and stands perfectly still while mezzo Maria Riccarda Wesseling, the singing Orfeo, cries out Eurydice’s name (forgive me for not using the German spelling despite the fact that the opera is sung in German); a dead tree is the only prop.
Stage left is Eurydice herself, silent (the dancer Marie-Agnes Gillot), sitting high above the stage floor in her white, shroud-like wedding dress which reaches to the floor, a bouquet of blood-red roses cradled in her arms. She looks down at the grief around her; black-clad women and men writhe with anguish, their hands imploring and twisting. Orfeo lies face down near the tree and as the mourners leave slowly, he begins a tortured solo, clearly begging the gods’ assistance. Bausch’s choreography throughout is filled with swaying and upper-body movement; the feet never fidget. After a brief while the singing and dancing seem inevitably intertwined, as if the opera were always performed this way. Much of it gives the impression of a dream.
Hell is watched over by three men in leather aprons; they return after Eurydice dies a second time to take Orfeo. A remarkable moment occurs at the opera’s peak moment: Eurydice, now in bright red, has been dancing madly, trying to get Orfeo to look back at her. He does and she dies in his arms as the singing Eurydice falls to the ground. Dancing Orfeo picks her up and places her atop the dancing Eurydice, and singing Orfeo kneels and sings the opera’s most famous aria, “Che faro senza Eurydice”. The effect is ravishing.
The costumes, sets, and lighting by Rolf Borzik, as suggested above, are evocative yet unfussy. The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble & Choir play and sing handsomely throughout, with the chorus placed in the pit behind the musicians. Thomas Hengelbrock leads sensitively, whipping up a storm for the Furies and serving the needs of both singers and dancers. Mezzo Wesseling’s Orfeo is strongly and movingly sung; hers may not be the greatest voice or interpretation, but she fits this production. However, Bridard’s dancing of the part is unmatchable–he’s on stage throughout and he seems thoroughly transfixed, expressing every emotion wordlessly and with grace and power. Julia Kleiter’s Eurydice is lovely, a perfect match for the glorious Marie-Agnes Gillot. And Sunhae Im’s shining Amore matches Miteko Kudo’s dancing of the part.
As mentioned, the opera is sung in German, which I guess we will simply have to forgive. Subtitles are in all major European languages; the High Definition picture is superb and the sound (PCM Stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1) matches it. There is some strong DVD competition, but this really is one of a kind.
Robert Levine / Classics Today