Pina Bausch: Orpheus und Eurydike

I saw Pina Bausch’s Orpheus und Eurydike on TFO tonight, a dance piece based on the Gluck opera, in a respectful production of a work originally created in the mid-1970s, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock.  This live production dates from 2008, the year before the choreographer died.

In some respects the work seems very respectful and not terribly new, in its use of the Gluck opera.  Each of the three principals (Orpheus, Eurydike and the Goddess Love) is divided in two, putting a singer and a dancer onstage for each dramatic figure.  The scenes that are beautiful in the opera are also beautiful in Bausch’s work.  Her choreography seems quaint looking back across decades of Regietheater & deconstruction, an approach largely respecting the story & its sentiments.

Until the end, that is.  I won’t spoil it, except to say that it’s not what Gluck wrote.

The singing is quite good (Maria Riccarda Wesseling, mezzo soprano Julia Kleiter, soprano, and Sunhae Im, soprano), sung in German.

There’s a great deal of tension accumulated in the unspoken rules governing the relationship between singer and dancer.  The singer and dancer of Orpheus never touch, but seem to experience the story on two separate levels, as though one were the body of the personage, and the other, the soul. Here’s an example in one of my favourite passages of the opera.

When, towards the end of the work, we watch Orpheus try to persuade Eurydike to accompany him back to Earth, while she demands that he look upon her, we see this drama enacted by two of each.  When Orpheus is finally unable to resist looking, and turns to see his wife, the effect is upon both the singer and the dancer.

So here I am again facing gender ambiguity in an opera.  Orpheus is danced by a man but sung by a woman, reflecting the version they’ve chosen to sing, where Orpheus was presumably a castrato.

And between lives do we have a gender?  I put that question out there because it makes a great deal of sense that Orpheus has these two opposite sides –one masculine, one feminine—that seem to balance.  The functional reason is more to do with what’s in Gluck’s score than anything about souls and gender, yet even so, I make sense of it based on how it looks and feels, and can’t help the way the work moves me. movement language is not as strong or virtuosic as ballet, but movement as if remembered from ballet in another life, movement of great tranquility, with occasional eruptions into something social (for groups) or individual.

I am mindful of Robert Carsen’s minimal production two years ago, not sure anything is added here, and certain much is missing, given the purity of those images.  The moments of greatest beauty in the score are also stunning here, but didn’t move me so much as what I saw from Carsen.  I think my prejudices are showing, as I like the directness of opera when it’s able to be direct.

The performance is available on DVD and Blue-ray.

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