Choreographer Jo Strømgren debuted as an opera director in 2013 with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s beautiful version of the myth of giving everything for love. “An exceptionally expressive and beautiful combination of opera and ballet – give us more!” exclaimed VG’s reviewer.
In the autumn of 2016 the successful collaboration between the Norwegian National Opera and Norwegian National Ballet returns, along with conductor and baroque specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini. The role of Orpheus is sung by countertenor David Hansen, who with his crystal-clear and bright male voice pulls Eurydice back from the realm of the dead.
“Simply put, Orpheus is a guy who is truly in love,” says Jo Strømgren. “It’s about making a choice; about going for something.” Orpheus refuses to compromise and dares to give everything.
The art of the impossible
The myth of Orpheus has been used by countless composers throughout musical history, from Monteverdi to Terje Rypdal. It is therefore no surprise that this is the opera genre’s favourite story; the myth of Orpheus, who goes to the underworld in order to save his love Eurydice, is about music and the transgressive power of love – about singing so beautifully that the impossible becomes possible.
Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice premiered in Vienna in 1762, as part of the composer’s persistent attempts to reform the opera genre, which he felt had become more about putting on a show and less about true drama. Gluck wanted to get back to the core of what he felt the opera should be – the art of telling stories through music. One of his methods of achieving this was to allow this story of the power of song to be supplemented by dance. The bodies of the dancers are thereby dressed in the music, and the music becomes a narrative in movement. This demonstrates the similarities between opera and ballet – as art forms that we hear with our eyes and see with our ears.
Orfeo grieves before the tomb of his wife, Euridice, as a group of mourners place tributes on her grave. Orfeo is touched by their laments, but his sorrow is acute and he asks to be left alone. He calls on the spirit of his beloved wife to hear his despair; then, cursing the gods for having taken Euridice from him, he resolves to descend to Hades and brave the Furies to find her.
As he speaks, Amor, the god of love, appears and announces that the other gods, moved by Orfeo’s despair, will allow him to reclaim his wife from the underworld. There is one condition, however: He must not look at her until they have returned to the upper world. Alone once more, Orfeo can scarcely believe what has happened, but, conquering his fears, he sets out for the infernal regions.
At the entrance to the underworld, the Furies who stand guard demand to know the identity of the bold intruder. Orfeo begs them to take pity on his tears. At first they refuse and try to frighten him away. But the Furies at last respond to his eloquent song; when Orfeo repeats his request, they recede, allowing him to approach the gates of hell.
In the Elysian Fields, a group of blessed spirits dances serenely. They depart, and Orfeo enters searching for his wife. Though he pauses to delight in the scene, he says that only the sight of Euridice can ease his grief. The Shades, hearing his plea, lead in Euridice. Orfeo grasps her hand and, taking care not to look at her, begins the journey back to the upper world.
Orfeo urges his wife to hurry as he leads her toward the upper world. He has obeyed the gods’ injunction that he must not look at her throughout their journey. Euridice, stopping for a moment to celebrate her reunion with her husband, soon becomes anxious. Why will Orfeo not look at her? Has death faded her beauty? With difficulty Orfeo keeps his face turned away and exhorts his wife to have faith and continue their ascent. Euridice laments that she has been liberated from death only to face the colder fate of unrequited love.
Unable to resist her anguished pleas, Orfeo defies the gods’ command and turns to embrace his wife, who at once breathes a farewell and dies. Overcome with grief and remorse, the Orfeo cries that life has no meaning for him without Euridice. Preparing to take his own life, he resolves to join his wife in death. Before he can do so Amor appears and announces that Orfeo has passed the tests of faith and constancy and restores Euridice to life. The happy couple returns to the upper world, where they are greeted by friends, who perform dances of celebration. Orfeo, Amor and Euridice praise the power of love.