An opera by Christoph Willibald Glück (1762)
Staged and choreographed by Pina Bausch (1975)
Sung in German, danced by the Paris Opera Ballet
Orpheus – a musician so gifted that the sound of his lyre and arc of his voice can make rivers change course, wild animals lie down to be petted, and rocks cry — dares to journey to the underworld in search of his beloved wife, Eurydice. This, one of the greatest love stories of ancient Roman mythology, provided the plot for not only the very first opera created in 1607 – Monteverdi’s Orfeo — but has inspired more than one hundred other operas or ballets.
Pina Bausch’s modern and expressive take on Glück’s richly emotional score solves the conundrum of how to return ballet to its rightful place in an operatic evening. Bausch took dance too seriously to provide mere divertissements. Here she blesses each singer with a danced double, as in Glück’s original version: bodies and voices interact and complete each other. This intricate coupling of song and movement creates a symbiosis that you could say resembles a great marriage. One that has, already, lasted much longer than the brief and tragic one of Orpheus and Eurydice…
PART ONE: (1 hour 20 minutes)
FIRST TABLEAU: Mourning
Her snowy wedding veil now a shroud, Eurydice had died from a serpent’s bite on her wedding day. In her motionless arms: red roses symbolizing her husband Orpheus’s passionate love. Orpheus, devastated by grief at the loss of his turtle-dove, refuses to be consoled by the nymphs and shepherds who mourn with him.
But Orpheus is the greatest singer on earth. Despite daring to speak of the cruelty of the gods, his cries of despair sound so beautiful that they soften the hearts of these very same gods. Love arrives with a message: Orpheus will be allowed into Hades. If his music can disarm the guardians of the gates of Eternity, then he might be able to do what no living being had ever done: bring his wife back from the realm of the dead.
But there is one condition. Should he succeed in wrenching his wife from the arms of death, Orpheus must not look at her – nor explain why — before they have returned to this earth. Orpheus is suddenly worried for he has never lied, or been less than utterly honest, to Eurydice before.
SECOND TABLEAU: Violence
Orpheus enters a horrible dark and smoky cave by the river Styx, where the waters of woe pour into those of lamentation… and soon dissolve into the stream of oblivion. His wife just beyond reach, Orpheus must confront the three-headed guardian of the Underworld, the hound Cerberus (three male dancers in leather butcher’s aprons) and a swarm of Furies. You may be surprised that these screeching female avengers destined to torment sinners move about more like merely nervous and tired souls yearning for rest. That is because in Ovid’s vivid description, Orpheus proves the only mortal to make the implacable Furies not only relent, but weep. So if at first sight the Furies scream “no!” they do finally allow Orpheus to pass, swayed by how his beautiful music embodies the power of such loving devotion.
THIRD TABLEAU: Peace
Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited in the Elysian Fields, that exquisite and peaceful meadow in paradise where “blessed spirits” enjoy an eternity free from those violent human emotions that make us suffer so in mortal life. (The French term for this place is Les Champs-Elysées). Having already taken a drink from the river of forgetfulness and feeling rather blissed out, Eurydice is startled by how Orpheus seems both panicked and utterly cold at the same time. Did he come all this way only to turn away from her? Why, then, should she abandon this new « life? »
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
PART TWO: (30 minutes)
FINAL TABLEAU: Death
As she is being led back to earth Eurydice, unable to understand why Orpheus stubbornly refuses look at her, can only imagine that it must be because he no longer loves her. In that case, she would rather be dead. Her despair grows, and Orpheus struggles to maintain his self-control.
This situation always makes me think of a very long car ride, where you are stuck in the back and wind up wanting to strangle the driver, there, in the front, with his back to you, who has been feeding you monosyllables for hours. Even if that means wrecking the car in the middle of Idaho. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Now is the time for you to re-view Jean Cocteau’s dark-hearted film.
Alas, unable to stand it any longer, Orpheus suddenly turns to face Eurydice, to reassure and embrace her. At that very instant she falls dead, this time forever. Orpheus loses the will to live, even to move. In a poignant and emotionally raw final tableau, he allows death to take him too.
The opera’s libretto provides a happy end, where human frailty is forgiven and love conquers all. Bausch decided to cut Glück’s last two scenes. Her somber finale, with music from the lament we heard at the outset, is probably more suited to our pessimistic times, and rhymes well with the choreographer’s feral sensitivity to the complexity of life and love. Her company in Wupperthal was/lives on as a coven of strong women who make big statements, most often in clad in those dresses that swish and swoop and make you move differently from normal – one way to signify the female in all her power. Her men embrace extremes: clad in suits, or leather, or almost nothing at all. They are either grindingly dominant or utterly fragile. Bausch understood how, while we like to dream of love, too often we suffer from the urge to tear each other (and ourselves) apart. The Paris Opera Ballet is the only company outside Bausch’s own to have been deemed capable of doing justice to not just one but two of her masterpieces — the other being her pungent and loamy Rite of Spring, which will hopefully soon return to the repertoire.