In 2005, Pina Bausch gave the Paris Opera Ballet her version of Orpheus and Eurydice, choreographed on Christoph Willibald Gluck’s music. In this danced opera, first performed in 1975, the choreographer translated the intensity of the tragedy into gesture, delicately combining singing with dance. By returning to the essence of human emotion and freeing dance from all artifice, she translated the composer’s intentions with the utmost fidelity.
From its first performance in 1762 in Vienna, in the original Italian version, until its adaptation by Pina Bausch in 1975 as a choreographed opera, Gluck’s “Orpheus” had a number of avatars: revived and adapted many times, it bears witness to changes in tastes and practices over the ages; and yet it also bears the marks of a constant quest for authenticity, for the absolute, beyond artifice and practical constraints.
We are familiar with the reforming ideas that led Gluck to compose his Orpheus and Eurydice: rejecting the surfeit of special effects and artifices characteristic of Italian-style opera, he aimed to allow music once again to serve the clear exposition of drama and emotion and thus restore opera to its natural framework. In the initial version of “Orpheus”, first performed in Vienna in 1762, Calzabigi's libretto is in Italian and the principal role is for a castrato, but the sobriety of the melodic lines and the close illustration of the action by the music, inspired by French-style classical tragedy with which Gluck was familiar, were novelties and had a strong effect on audiences.
So much so that Gluck, who settled in Paris in the 1770s, decided to adapt Orpheus and Eurydice for French audiences: he had the libretto translated into French by Pierre-Louis Moline, added several numbers to the score (including Amour’s aria “Si les doux accords de ta lyre” and Orpheus’s “L’Espoir renaît dans mon âme”) and rewrote the role of Orpheus for tenor. First performed in 1774 at the Theatre of the Palais-Royal, the Parisian version of the opera was hailed as a triumph and the work, definitively adopted by the French, was to remain in the repertoire until the opening decades of the next century.
From the 1830s onwards, however, the fashion in Paris was for Rossini and Meyerbeer, and Gluck’s Orpheo disappeared from the billboard. In 1858, though, the director of the Théâtre-Lyrique Léon Carvalho decided to revive the work: wishing to readapt it to Parisian tastes, he asked the current idol of the opera-going public, Pauline Viardot, to sing the role of Orpheus. Gluck had initially conceived the role for a castrato, then rewritten it for a tenor: it was now a question of adapting it for mezzo-soprano, a female voice. It was Berlioz who carried out the work, transposing the role to a tessitura equivalent to that of the original version whilst maintaining the modifications and additions to the melodic line made by Gluck for the Paris version of 1774. Performed at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1859, this third version of Orpheus was, in its turn, a huge success. Since then, the idea of having Orpheus performed by a woman has stuck, and the “Berlioz version” has definitively supplanted the previous two.
In 1975, Pina Bausch’s revival of Orpheus and Eurydice marked yet another stage in the history of this work. The choreographer transformed the opera into a ballet, using a German libretto this time (translated from the French version) and divided into four tableaux: “Mourning”, “Violence”, “Peace” and “Death”. These terms express the existential notion of despair associated with Pina Bausch’s style ever since her earliest works: for her, the body must be confronted directly with the suffering, both physical and moral, that resides at the heart of human existence, in order to accept and transcend it. It is in this light that one must consider that fact the Pina Bausch took out the happy ending added by Moline for the French version, in which Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited thanks to the mercy of the gods, and restored the original ending culminating in the separation and death of the two lovers.
Thence, more generally, derives a form of dance which never aims to be decorative: “Reality can no longer always be danced […] I mean that the movements are so simple that one might think that this is not dance. And for me, it’s the opposite.” To transform the stage into a place for the direct expression of human feelings, free from artifice and floweriness, such was Gluck’s intention at the time; such, finally, over and beyond the modifications and successive versions of the work, is the constant factor in the history of Orpheus and Eurydice.