Orpheus and Eurydice

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday, July 21.

In Camus’s The Plague, two characters attend a performance of Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice during the height of the epidemic, and the singer playing Orpheus falls violently ill. Panicked, the audience stampedes for the exits—and the novel definitely seems a bit contemptuous of their dawning horror, suggesting that they were blinkered and weak in their escapism, that it was fitting that their fairy tales of snatching loved ones from death had been torn away.

I read The Plague years ago, but I remember being thoroughly annoyed with Camus for that scene. Didn’t he realize that the myth of Orpheus is about the futility of trying to thwart death? Perhaps the people were drawn to the opera because it helped them accept mortality and find beauty in a finite life. How was that so wrong? Of course, after bitching self-righteously on these points, I learned that Camus had it right: Traditional myths be damned, Gluck’s opera ends with Eurydice being to returned to life one last time, even after Orpheus turns back to look at her, so my indignation was entirely misdirected.

I hadn’t thought about that rather embarrassing episode in my literary education for ages, but the late choreographer Pina Bausch’s staging brought it back to me. Dark and eerie and grim from beginning to end, the production actually cuts half of the final act: After Orpheus’s agonizing lamentation for the dead-again Eurydice, the musicians return to the Furies’ themes from Act II, and not only does Eurydice stay dead but Orpheus himself dies also—no deus ex machina happy endings in sight. This, I thought, was an Orpheus even Camus would have to respect.

Bausch created the work in the 1970s for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, and Brigitte Lefèvre, director of the Paris Opera Ballet, incorporated it into her company’s repertory in 2005. (Because the opera has only three solo vocal parts, plus a great deal of wonderful orchestral and choral music, it’s well suited for dance companies willing to supplement their usual accompanying orchestra with a few singers.) Her Orpheus is, perhaps, an unusually aggressive interpretation of the classic opera, but she is truer to the Greek myth than Gluck, and regardless, the production’s singular vision of the work is enormously powerful—a particularly lovely example of how cathartic the artistic portrayals of sadness and pain can be.

Bausch doubles the three solo vocal roles with dancers, so both a woman in a long black dress (mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling) and a nearly nude man (Nicolas Paul on Saturday night) portray Orpheus onstage, a conceit that feels slightly awkward at first but quickly becomes utterly unremarkable, especially as the corps so often takes center stage.

All the dancing is deceptively simple, marked by recurring motifs (a hand over one eye, an arm wrapped tightly around the torso, deep knee bends that glide into a slight rotation) and the airy allure of the long, diaphanous skirts the women invariably wear. Obscuring the legs and feet as they do, the skirts emphasize a holistic sense of movement—neither better nor worse than pointe-oriented traditional ballet but different. Bausch’s overtly emotional style, with choreographed keening and falls and darting runs across the stage, fits the elemental subject matter well.

The first scene, “Mourning” in Bausch’s scenario, is pretty and quietly portentous, but it didn’t truly capture my imagination. (Plus, many of the stage elements—a bare, fallen tree trunk; a large stone behind glass; a silent woman in white perched atop a high stool, holding a bouquet of red roses—were distracting.) But the second scene, “Violence,” marking Orpheus’s entry into the Underworld, is mesmerizing. The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir, conducted by Manlio Benzi, was at its best here, digging into the dissonances and making Gluck’s Classical despair sound as raw and shattering as any Romantic’s. The mythical imagery is intense also, with dancers futilely stretching the tangled threads of their lives and constantly subjected to the torments of Hades. (I felt bad for the poor ballerina playing a Tantalus-inspired role; she spends most of the scene on the tips of her toes, straining her arms desperately upward toward a just-barely-too-high apple. It looked dull yet exhausting.) And the Furies, played by three men dressed in black leather aprons, like sadistic butchers, are appropriately angular and brusque in their movements, with knifing leaps and a dominating stage presence.

The third scene, “Peace,” portrays the transition into Elysium, which is comparatively placid but still shadowy and somehow unsettled, with a relatively dark stage and only the barest of flowerbeds. Even in the midst of that, though, Bausch’s choreography for “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” is enchanting, making the most of the ballerinas’ willowy beauty with fluid gestures and gentle spins that nearly create the illusion that they women are floating around the stage on a soft cloud of chiffon.

This is where the Eurydices—both the singer (soprano Yun Jung Choi) and the dancer (Alice Renavand on Saturday night)—make their appearance, the one’s elegant, lyrical voice enhancing the other’s wistful grace. The eventual pas de deux between Orpheus and Eurydice is a fascinating one, as Orpheus can never look directly at his dead wife, forcing them to contort themselves and partner in odd positions.

And then, of course, he does look, and after a brief moment of blissful communion, both Eurydices collapse artfully, with Renavand’s body draped across Choi’s, Wesseling kneeling over them, and Paul a bit apart, facing the back wall, never to dance again for the rest of the opera. Bausch pays Gluck the remarkable compliment of keeping everyone still for the entirety of Orpheus’s gorgeous, heartbreaking lament (“Che farò senza Euridice?” in the Italian), which begins at grief-stricken and grows increasingly anguished from verse to verse. I’ve listened to that aria countless times and, at this point, have a practically Pavlovian reaction to the first few bars, but Wesseling sang it with such beautiful, expressive agony that it felt fresh despite the familiarity.

When I saw the Metropolitan Opera perform Orfeo a few years ago, I reconciled myself to Gluck’s happy ending, more or less, but I have to say, I prefer Bausch’s rewrite: Orpheus’s Voice keens over a limp Eurydice while his Body grows still, and instead of Amor suddenly showing up to tack on a happy ending, the Furies arrive to dispassionately clear away the corpses. Gluck’s Orpheus is a blithe fairy tale about the power of love to conquer anything, but Bausch knew better and choreographed accordingly.