By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – In her new production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, currently on run at the Staatsoper Berlin, Sasha Waltz takes the notion of a choreographed opera to the next level. Her troupe sings along with the choruses. The musicians of the Freiburger BarockConsort interweave with the action. At its best, the staging achieves an organic blend in which it seems perfectly natural for a dancer to swoop across the stage during a ritornello or for a conductor to walk barefoot toward his musicians. But the layers of action also create awkward moments which distract from the artistic whole.
Waltz made her first foray into the genre of choreographed opera, in which both her troupe and singers are integrated into a danced staging, with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in 2004. Her most recent such work was the premiere production of Toshio Hosokawa’s 2011 opera Matsukaze, which premiered in Brussels to huge acclaim, with a U.S. debut at Spoleto USA in 2013 and upcoming July performances at the Staatsoper, following Orfeo.
In what she last summer declared would be the final opera produced by her company, Sasha Waltz & Guests, the choreographer has fulfilled a long-time dream by putting Monteverdi onstage. The project was inspired by her work on the French composer Pascal Dusapin’s Passion, loosely based on the myth of Orfeo, with the baritone Georg Nigl.
Orfeo, which premiered in Amsterdam last September and is currently on run at the Staatsoper Berlin, adopts an aesthetic both naturalist and modern. A giant wooden box, with panels that open to a video projection of a lush, green forest, creates a surface for the action in the first three acts (sets by Alexander Schwarz, of David Chipperfield Architects). The choreography opens with a flowing, at times balletic response to Monteverdi’s music, beautifully performed by Zaratiana Randrianantenaina, but soon shifts toward a more angular, self-enclosed aesthetic with the interlude to the spritely chorus “Lasiciate i monti.” The pastoral theme of the second act starts out promisingly with the shepherds’ understated, shoulder-to-shoulder dancing, but becomes a bit over the top as the throng of singers and dancers toss vegetables and shake their hips with apples in their mouths.
A more organic tableau emerges following the announcement that Eurydice has been fatally bitten by a snake, with darkened lighting by Martin Hauk and slow, intertwining movement that hovers close to the floor. Orfeo (the affecting but at times histrionic Nigl) sings his famous lament “Tu se’ morta” to a bare stage, focusing attention on his personal suffering, with the exception of two woodwind players who appear briefly. Their presence, however, seems inconclusive, as they don’t respond to the situation with their bodies or facial expressions. By contrast, the entrance of the ferryman Charonte (the smooth bass Douglas Williams) reveals Waltz at the height of her powers. A throng of dancers writhe around him like Furies, at once his ferry and the tortured souls of Hades.
With Orfeo’s arrival in the underworld, Schwarz’s wooden set is dismantled, black rocks hovering in the distance of a timeless, blue landscape. With the exception of a silent prelude during which Waltz’s dancers throw dead branches to the side of the stage – a gesture which left this viewer perplexed – the fourth act proves engrossing. Proserpina (the lush-voiced mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini) performs a kind of pas de deux with Pluto (Konstantin Wolff) while entreating him to release Proserpina, now climbing his back, now flipped upside down. Orfeo’s fateful glance at Eurydice is depicted purely through dance. After scaling his shoulders like a spirit, she is carried off by a small troupe, crawling in the air.
The final act, in the fields of Thrace, explores Orfeo’s mourning. Following his weeping soliloquy, the male dancers flog him with branches before the females drag his limp body. His father, Apollo, appears from a balcony above the stage, an inspired touch if it weren’t for the attention it drew to the shaky ornamentation of baritone Julián Millán, who may have struggled to synchronize with Nigl. But it is impossible to resist the final chorus, “Vanne, Orfeo, felice apieno,” in which the bodies move freely with the music in a tight cluster, only to disperse like atoms, joined in a festive romp by select musicians of the Freiburger BarockConsort.
The ensemble under Torsten Johann, which spent most of the evening seated on each side of the stage, provided elegant, attentive accompaniment, although some numbers including “Lasciate i monti” were a bit square for the Italian language and would have benefitted from a brisker pace. Among the soloists, Anna Lucia Richter enacted the roles of La Musica and Eurydice with moving innocence and clear timbre, and the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant brought depth to both the Messenger and La Speranza. Countertenor Kaspar Kröner and tenor Fabio Trümpy stood out among the comprimarios. Choral numbers were expertly anchored by the Vocalconsort Berlin, an ensemble created on the occasion of Waltz’s Dido and Aeneas production. If this is really her last choreographed opera, it certainly leaves a viewer curious about the genre’s further possibilities.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.