In the Lincoln Center Festival's 'Orpheus,' the Theater Has Its Double

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In ancient Greece, the concept of eidolon, or humans having a double, was a prominent one—and one often intertwined with the rites of death. Helen of Troy’s eidolon, in Homer’s hands, gives the notorious beauty immortality. Likewise, in the blind bard’s Odyssey, the eidolons of Penelope’s slain suitors are glimpsed by the prophet Theokymenos.

Even without a cursory knowledge of this niche in Greek mythology, you get the sense that there is a deeply-rooted meaning in choreographer Pina Bausch’s 1975 work Orpheus and Eurydice. One of Bausch’s early works, the ballet was picked up by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2005 and is now being given its long overdue North American premiere as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Set to Gluck’s 1762 opera of the same name, this work is steeped in tradition, despite all of its acutely radical, bifurcated movements. Greek myth is easily embedded in Bausch’s double-casting of Orpheus, Eurydice and Love, with singers almost literally shadowing accompanying dancers in long, flowing black gowns and offering a choreographed vocal counterpoint to their eidolons’ magnetic, primal dancing. Dance was also a large component of the operas that preceded and followed Orpheus: it could be found in those of Lully (a dancer in his own right) and in later five-act French grand operas, which included a break in the dramatic action for a full ballet.

Gluck, however, looked to a more seamless fusing between the worlds of music and movement. While Bausch’s response to that—breaking the components down into their separate mediums—seems more deconstructive than constructive, said elements ultimately fuse together as if bound by some supernatural force. That they retain their individual promise while creating a whole greater than the proverbial sum is mesmerizing. Rolf Borzik’s sets add to the atomized charge in the air with austere white walls representing the realm of the living, which become gradually deconstructed into a mostly barebones black stage as Orpheus enters the underworld.

Singing Orpheus on Friday night, Maria Riccarda Wesseling’s mezzo-soprano sounded as if it was mid-bloom in the throes of grief and sudden loss. The eleven o’clock number sung upon Eurydice’s second death (“J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” sung here in German) was jarring in its choked emotion combined with a fluid, plummy tone. The symbiotic relationship between Wesseling and dancer Stéphane Bullion earned several rounds of well-deserved accolades at the evening’s end.

Love and Eurydice had comparatively cordoned-off roles—Bausch favored the tragic end of Gluck’s bipartisan work, which features a separate finale in which Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited (said version is currently the one used in the Met’s production). However, the dichotomy between the parts sung by Yun Jung Choi (Eurydice) and Zoe Nicolaidou (Love) was a striking one with two youthful sopranos, the former representing death and the latter representing youth (even Bausch’s eidolons have eidolons). A particular striking moment during Eurydice’s attempts to get Orpheus to look on her involved Choi’s voice trembling with fear while her dancing doppelganger, Marie-Agnès Gillot, shook like a leaf.

No small amount of credit is also due to conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, who made sure that all musicalities aligned harmoniously, leading both the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir from the pit. While the brass occasionally sounded a little uncomfortable in the space of the David H. Koch Theater, the sound on the whole flourished. Harpist Marta Graziolino was especially beguiling with her polished yet earthy touch.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Bausch’s work since her sudden death in 2009 and a 2011 documentary, Pina, which earned major cineaste accolades this past winter. Her Orpheus is a magnificent sample of her early work, but taken in the context of much of the work seen at Lincoln Center in the last few years, it’s disturbing how cutting-edge a production closing in on 40 seems. Such performances should be the rule rather than the exception, and it shows (especially in the Paris Opera Ballet’s first New York outing in over 15 years) how relative the term “radical” is between the American and European art worlds.

Still, better late than never. And while both sides of the Atlantic are bereft of Bausch, the choreographer has her own eidolon in her works.