Of course, any conversation surrounding the myth of Orpheus will touch upon his extraordinary musical talent. But his strong ties with dance shouldn’t be underestimated. Anything and anyone subjected to his music, so the myth tells us, even animals, rocks and trees, would burst into dance. In a way Orpheus is like a benign Pied Piper. How fitting then, to have it all come together in L’Orfeo by Nederlandse Reisopera, seen Saturday 25 January at Wilminktheater in Enschede.
Most of the time it isn’t even really clear who in the ensemble is a singer, and who is a dancer. All twenty performers – ten dancers, ten singers – are together on stage, moving as one amorphous organism (director Monique Wagemakers herself likens it to softly waving coral). Then a solitary figure emerges from the mass: Musica (Luciana Mancini), who introduces us to the tragic story of Orpheus (Samuel Boden), a famous Thracian singer and half-god, whose musical prowess was so unparalleled he could charm the pants off any creature, living or dead.
Orpheus is going to need his superhuman powers soon enough. His beautiful bride, Eurydice (Kristen Witmer), dies tragically on their wedding day and a heartbroken Orpheus ventures down into the underworld to get his beloved back. His music moves Proserpina (also Mancini) to persuade her husband Pluto (Yannis François), God of the underworld, to release Orpheus’ wife. He acquiesces, under one condition. Orpheus is not allowed to look back at Eurydice, not until they are both outside and back in the world of the living.
Again, as with the twenty performers, I would be hard pressed to tell you where Wagemaker’s direction ends and the choreography by Nanine Linning begins. Apart from several short bursts of stand-alone choreography, where the ten dancers from Dance Company Nanine Linning detach from the herd, and the solo singing parts, the performers all blend together seamlessly. The singers have been specifically selected for their moving abilities.
Only Orpheus stands out from the pack. He is the driving force of the story. The other performers could even be seen as manifestations of his inner life, Wagemakers explained in an interview with Trouw. They comfort and support him, huddling and nestling themselves around him like affectionate cats. When Eurydice’s death has rendered Orpheus speechless, they vocalize his anguish.
Choreographer Nanine Linning is no stranger to the organic intermingling of different disciplines. It is a skill she developed during her time as artistic director of Dance Company Nanine Linning / Theater Osnabrück and Dance Company Nanine Linning / Theater Heidelberg. Over the years she has made multidisciplinary pieces about Hieronymus Bosch, Madame Butterfly, Francis Bacon and Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. Here, her choreography meshes perfectly with the singing. Both Wagemaker’s direction and Linning’s choreography are tremendously helped by the beautiful costume design by Marlou Breuls, made of rippling fabrics in matching skin tones.
The fifteenth century musical score by Claudio Monteverdi (performed by musical ensemble La Sfera Armoniosa and led by Hernán Schvartman), from which the production derives its title, ties everything together. The singers perform in Italian with Dutch and English subtitles.
There is one final ‘cast’ member who deserves special mention: Ego, an installation by Lonneke Gordijn (of Studio DRIFT). Ego is a delicately woven textile mesh, made of sixteen kilometers of very fine nylon yarn. Most of the time it is suspended, in a cube shape, above the performers. But its meaning and function constantly shift. It can function as a cage, holding Orpheus hostage when he has just lost Eurydice for the second time, or descend as a shroud when Orpheus first learns of his beloved’s untimely death. Its versatility does make me wonder if the production really also needed the geometrical projections at the end, when a despondent Orpheus ascends to the heavens with his father Apollo (Laurence Kilsby). It’s a minor qualm for a pretty flawless production.
Seen: January 25, 2020, Wilminktheater, Enschede. Tour l’Orfeo
Musical direction: Hernan Schvartman | concept: Monique Wagemakers, Studio Drift/Lonneke Gordijn and Nanine Linning | direction: Monique Wagemakers | creation installation ‘Ego’: Lonneke Gordijn (Studio Drift) | choreography: Nanine Linning | costume design: Marlou Breuls | lighting design: Thomas Hase.