Hamburg Ballet: “Orphée et Eurydice” by John Neumeier
Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany, September 27, 2019
On the edge of the Black Forest, Baden-Baden is not only home to Germany’s most renowned thermal springs. It also hosts the Festspielhaus, the largest opera house in the country, an imposing monument overlooking the chic city center. Seeking to turn Baden-Baden into a wider cultural haven, Benedikt Stampa, new artistic director, opened the season with a big name (John Neumeier), a famous opera (Gluck’s “Orphée and Eurydice,” in its Paris version) and a fine company (Hamburg Ballet).
Created in 2017 for the Joffrey Ballet and consequently still a bit confidential in Europe although it earned outstanding reviews, Neumeier’s “Orphée and Eurydice” is presented as a bold “ballet opera” and is intended to take a “fresh look to the well known myth,” setting a “cornerstone of European culture.” No less than that. Expectations were high, of course, vividly remembering Neumeier’s talent for choreographing narrative full-length pieces (who hasn’t been awestruck by his “Lady of the Camellias”?) and discovering that he played triple duty as choreographer, director and designer there.
Yet, apart from a few staggering moments, that “Orphée” may not have turned out as innovative as it promised. The evening proved uneven, failing to outshine Pina Bausch’s magnificent modern take on the myth. Most strikingly, dance was somewhat downgraded to a secondary entertainment, meant to accompany the opera. Instead of interlacing ballet and opera as equal art forms, Neumeier interpolated dance between the main soli, which remained void of choreographic counterparts. This is quite a pity, knowing that in Gluck’s time, ballet was only starting to emerge as an independent art form. There was an opportunity to root the dance into the drama, in this “Oprhée” that wasn’t fully seized. A very telling fact: the dancers’ cast wasn’t disclosed, the programme focusing on the opera singers.
The opening scene matches the joyful musical prologue, the curtains opening on a ballet class whose coolly contemporary style contrasts with the baroque accents of the music. Presenting a modern twist on the scenario might be welcome but the achingly beautiful, old-fashioned lyrics seem centuries away from the nowadays scenes. At least, Eurydice’s death is framed in a proper story, as a diva prima ballerina who, after having words with the choreographer (our modern Orphée) dies in a fatal car accident. Then, the chorus starts lamenting over the lifeless Eurydice, echoing Orphée’s sorrow, as black-clad dancers embody the shadow of despair hovering over the tragic hero. The first tableau is realistic, advocating Gluck’s idea that the audience should empathize with the emotional struggle of the ill-fated lovers. But the following ones soon show settings and choreography distilled down to a mismatch of abstracts movements and scenes, losing grip with the original frame. The Furies, however, stand out in the blurry maelstrom of hell as inspired incarnations of a tormented underworld, viscerally swaying in anarchic chaos. Poles apart, the Elysium scenes come as a relief with their gauzy, white spirits, lending an ethereal quality to the weightless, gentle lifts of the dancers.
Overall, though, dance proves a pretty interlude between operatic climaxes. For instance, in the last act, after Orphée and Eurydice meet again in a bittersweet happy ending, dance is reduced to a decorative dimension, reminiscing 19th-century overlong divertissements. The only connection to ballet that really exists in “Orphée” lies is the new argument, starring a ballet star (Eurydice), a choreographer (Orphée) and a ballet assistant (Amour). The choreographic vocabulary is Neumeier’s usual: it draws on classical ballet and modern dance combined, it is fluid and liquid, beautiful to look at, even if it tends to convey little humanity in the most dramatic acmes. The Hamburg soloists, although sidelined by their operatic counterparts, showed otherworldly gracefulness. So did the female soprano (Arianna Vendittelli), a singing Eurydice who nearly looked like a classical trained dancer.
Maxim Mironov, as Orphée, did justice to the demanding high tessitura of the part. Arianna Vendittelli and Marie-Sophie Pollak, as Amour, reached seraphic, sky-high notes which went straight to the heart, making up for the lack of choreographic depth.
In the background, a central design motif was Böcklin’s painting Die Toteninsel (The Isle of Dead), serving as the subject of the ballet that Orphée had created for his muse. The enigmatic painting, a work of austere beauty, is supposedly depicting an oarsman, ferrying souls to an antique underworld, and an elusive white-veiled passenger seemingly transiting to the afterlife. This might be an allegory for the epilogue of “Orphée,” which is acceptance of the loss of a loved one.
“Orphée and Eurydice” was intended as a tribute to the heavenly quality of music and art in general. Indeed, Orphée is only granted the right to enter the realm of the dead and to free Eurydice after moving the gods with his beautiful lament. This version of the opera might trigger devastating feelings but it will not be due to the choreographic moments. Neumeier’s work here is not entirely the Gesamtkunstwerk sought after.