Paring back an immortal tale to its essence
This time, might the story come out differently? So says your brain at every encounter with Orpheus and Eurydice - even in an Opera Company of Philadelphia rehearsal room. This time, Eurydice won't die on her wedding day. And then she does. But when her husband Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve her, he won't ruin his second chance with a forbidden backward glance. And then he does.
This time, might the story come out differently?
So says your brain at every encounter with Orpheus and Eurydice - even in an Opera Company of Philadelphia rehearsal room. This time, Eurydice won't die on her wedding day. And then she does. But when her husband Orpheus goes to the underworld to retrieve her, he won't ruin his second chance with a forbidden backward glance. And then he does.
"Nobody outsmarts death. You can't negotiate the deaths of others," said director Robert Driver. "That's why this theme has been done by everybody."
Though this is one legend that grows more modern as it gets older, the Opera Company of Philadelphia is homing in on the basic core of the story in a production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice opening Thursday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater - in a production so pared back that Orpheus won't even have a lyre to accompany his laments. "We need to have the courage to step back and let the piece speak," Driver said.
He's one of the few. There's a reason for that.
Few stories so handily embed themselves into the fabric of each succeeding milieu. Halfway through Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), James Stewart loses a suicidal Kim Novak, only to find her apparent look-alike and watch her die again the same way. In the Broadway musical Steel Pier, a 1930s stunt flier survives a crash - so he can lead the woman he loves out of the Depression-era hell of an Atlantic City dance marathon. Often, the overt retellings of the story are the most radical: Jacques Offenbach's 1858 operetta Orpheus in the Underworld makes the title character a pretentious bore who writes endless, insufferable violin concertos that send Eurydice into the arms of a nearby shepherd.
As always, the retellings say as much about their time as they do about the legend itself. The basic themes include transcending the laws of nature through the power of song, the hubris of defying death, and loss of faith when Orpheus disregards the no-backward-glance order as he leads Eurydice out of the underworld. In some versions, he is punished with death. In others, he voluntarily joins her in death. In one, he renounces love of women and takes up with boys. Every so often, Eurydice achieves a final, ultimate resurrection. (More on that later.)
Besides offering the dramatic advantages of having multiple death scenes, the story tends to be a barometer of social upheaval - embodying the agony of change and fear of an unknown future. The first great opera ever written was Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo - at a time (1607) when music was being liberated from church functions and reflected real lives of real individuals.
Some 150 years later, Gluck's treatment of the story almost single-handedly changed opera from a florid entertainment to a medium of gravity, and became an aesthetic cornerstone for Berlioz, Wagner, and Strauss. By using characters from antiquity to criticize present company, Offenbach put himself at the satiric vanguard of 1850s Paris with Orpheus in the Underworld - also bringing the once-scandalous cancan from the dance halls to the opera stage.
You might laugh at the 1949 Jean Cocteau film Orphée as the title character receives enigmatic underworld messages from his car radio, but this echoes how anti-Nazi information was passed during the World War II French Resistance. Ricky Ian Gordon's acclaimed 70-minute song cycle Orpheus and Euridice for choreographed soprano and clarinetist is a veiled reflection of the AIDS epidemic.
Taking the temperature of any given version starts with how Eurydice dies - both times. The basic version has her bitten by a snake. But in the famous 1959 Marcel Camus film Black Orpheus, set in Rio during Carnaval, an unusually helpless Eurydice is pursued by Death and, while hanging on a power line, is accidentally electrocuted when Orpheus throws the wrong switch.
Well, nobody said he was as resourceful as a god (even though he can make the sun rise by playing his guitar). During the Brazilian seance scene, Orpheus is too impetuous to come close to retrieving Eurydice. Later, when his ex-girlfriend throws a rock at his head that sends him tumbling over a cliff, the message is clear: To be mortal is to be vulnerable to death every moment of the day.
Feminist versions seem less troubled by such existential truth. Eurydice is so fed up with Orpheus at the start of Orpheus in the Underworld - written as the women's suffrage movement was seriously coalescing - that she dies voluntarily just to get away from him, and is then entangled in a comic love triangle with Jupiter and Pluto. More recently, the famous 1997 Laurent Pelly Orpheus in the Underworld production shows Eurydice perfectly at home in Pluto's realm, curled up on the sofa, channel surfing.
A major recent addition to the Orphic literature is Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice (produced so memorably at the Wilma Theater in 2008). The title character flirts with death in the form of a seductive, Pluto-like figure who lures her to his penthouse claiming he has messages for her from her dead father. Once she falls to her death, she finds her father in the underworld, and though he doesn't recognize her, she builds him a house.
But because legends are fair game for any old variation, the Orpheus story, in a few instances, has a happy ending. In Cocteau's film, the story is all a bad dream - from which Eurydice wakes up pregnant. The Gluck opera that's being presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia has something of a nine-lives Eurydice. The opera exists in many versions - Italian and French, with Orpheus sung by mezzo-soprano, tenor, or baritone - though OCP opts for a Hector Berlioz-assembled edition for mezzo-soprano Orpheus (Ruxandra Donose) and a less-than-celebratory but still happy ending.
Director Driver shakes his head: "It pulls the plug on the whole thing." His solution is to unite the pair in death (similar to Black Orpheus) - even if that arguably falsifies the opera's vision. Yet it's true to the mythology. And in the freewheeling world of German Regietheater - "director's theater" - such liberties are nothing.
"Last time I saw the opera in Munich, I just sat there speechless when it was over," said Driver. "The chorus was in modern dress. I have no problem with that. In the Elysian fields, Orphée crawls out of a casket and onto a beachy sand area. Fine. But in one of the non-singing interludes, something I can only describe as a snow-cone bear walks onstage, looks at the audience, and walks off.
"That, I did not understand."