Review: The Splits and the Bees. “Orphée aux enfers” in Salzburg


[Curtain Call, “Orphée aux enfers” – Salzburg Festival, August 26th, 2019]

Jove, a god somewhat past his prime, ogles the female entourage of his daughter Diana and tries to feel the women up. When he is called out on his behavior and his entire family lists his prior conquests as jokes, his line is, „please let’s just keep up appearances!“ He continues to be the head god afterwards (a family revolt dies quickly when there‘s a party in the underworld to attend).

The next morning, in a corner at the breakfast café: Salzburger Nachrichten of August 26th publishes a title photo of aging singer Placido Domingo, surrounded by (mostly female) admirers armed with their mobile phones. The story covers the frenetic cheering of the crowd at Domingo‘s first public concert appearance after multiple allegations have been made against him in the context of the #MeToo debate. Domingo will appear again in Salzburg this Saturday.

Barrie Kosky’s staging of „Orphée aus enfers“ is operetta at its best: catchy tunes, spot-on choreography, wild over-the-top moments, and, sneaking up on the viewer in passing, moments that hit home underneath the fun, echoing with a sudden recent weight – such as Jove‘s leering -, before getting carried away again in the frenzy, leaving the viewer with a sensation to unpack later.

A similar moment happens over Eurydice‘s death: a woman, sprawled on a bed on her back in little clothing, between not understanding what is happening and then being unconscious. Climbing onto the other side of the bed, singing and with power over the narrative, is Aristée: a looming figure of a man, and then not a man, but someone with access to magic: the tenor God of the underworld. There are a few instances of teetering discomfort, ripe with recent headlines, while witnessing these bodies positioned like this, but it is just instances.

Then we‘re back to Kosky‘s surprisingly tender look at people, whatever sex or gender or orientation they might have, as physical realities, with desires and wishes and flaws and all the awkwardness and fleeting joy that may bring. And we remember that this Eurydice calls the shots and that she is at no point staged as someone dependent on another, or lacking agency. Another larger-than-life cocktail, please, with an entire pineapple hanging from its side!

While the first act is a firework of gags and absurdities (I went into the intermission with my make-up smudged due to tears of laughter), the second part comes up with some unexpectedly poignant images: a guillotined suit ballet, carrying their heads like tote bags, recalls the 1850s and their distance (or not) to the late 1840, to 1830 and to Revolution and Terreur, in class-dapper dance steps.
The final scene, on a near bare stage, comes with a large wheel of fortune, manned by a devil figure that, from my vantage, first seemed to be a Lady Fortune, which I would have liked even better. But the devil wheeling along in the underworld, like a macro-echo of Plutón, also works and illustrates the last moment: the Public Opinion, having lost, sits with the back to the audience, far away, a tattered doll spent, motionless, while at the forefront, a last dancer whirls and jumps into a dizzying number of splits: already staggering, always uprighting himself again, shrieking with life and defiance against the looming devil figure in the background and the void around him.
That the body standing in for the human „and yet!“ here is white, male and able-bodied (again), patterned with gay-coded movements, is a choice that didn’t feel excluding here instead of owed to perspectivity (but of course, it’s a perspective).

Drawing on ostracized movement repertory – in particular, on what male bodies can do and what they are often culturally barred from doing for fear of looking ‘gay’ – is something Kosky does a lot, also here. It blends into his work with physical comicality: twirling the absurd, the grotesque and the clap-trap struggle against gravity (and the futile struggle towards grace – reached only if unintended)) into a bellylaugh bouquet that, despite all Brechtian distancing, connects to the audience somewhere beyond the brain. Have not one, but a hundred violins fall from the cupboard! If there’s a bee-charmer appearing, give them live bees, supersized! Have all dialogue dubbed by the same actor! Quick, let’s hide in the cupboard, oh no, we can’t, it was only there in the first Act!

This approach hinges largely on the choreographies, but also on a cast of singers who throw themselves into their roles, inhabitating them until bursting at the seams: unafraid to exaggerate and expose themselves, to make themselves vulnerable. There’s grimacing and burping and yapping and sprawling (and fucking), yet it’s never laughing at someone without also laughing at oneself.

Foremost, it’s the Eurydice of Kathryn Lewek and the Aristée of Marcel Beekman who carry the show among the singers – Lewek, whose vocal presence is matched by her physical one, pouts and prances, pulls faces and pushes people and furniture around with a vibrancy that is intoxicating. One is left with the sensation in the end that she will be taking over the underworld before too long. Marcel Beekman, with Early Music cross-casting experience under his belt, is not just focused and ensnaring in tone, but also blurs borders in his acting in a fascinating way: man or god? Male or female? Human or animal? General dadaist distortion of the space-time continuum? All of the above, and with an ice-cream on top (no, there really is a number of him and Jove slurping each other’s ice-cream cones. Yes, that is exactly how this should be phrased).

Max Hopp, the Berlin-based actor, is another backbone of this staging – as John Styx, but actually present for nearly every moment as the factotum. He never overpowers his colleagues, his presence mindful and mind-blowing at once, in particular in his doing a voice-over (plus stage sounds!) of all the dialogue that is only playback-acted by the singers, apart from extempores and additions in everyone’s native tongue. Of course it’s a bit of Brechtian distancing. It’s also hilarious. And it is something that works much better in the house setting, with the whole stage at view, than in the video version ARTE provides, with Hopp often being cut into parallel view. It’s much funnier when it’s Prieto (Orphée), or Lewek (Eurydice) or Winkler (Jove) looking as if speaking in Hopp’s tone – unless Prieto asserts himself, “sí, le gusta!”, about his wife’s disinterest in his music-making (here, of course, a bodily repulsion that has her crawl away and cover her ears, while he, willowy frame bent to an indignant snap like a bow, insists ), or Lewek – in a stellar moment – gets to yell at a solo violinist of the Vienna Philharmonic to just “shut the fuck up!”

Hopp also delivers one of the quieter moments of the evening, a counterbalance to the frolicking, when his Styx – hopelessly in love with Eurydice and rejected by her – segues into an utterly miserable cry reprise of his “Prince of Arcadia” song. It’s ridiculous, and yet it’s a small distorted human who is so profoundly, relatably sad. Having these two collide – the wildly funny and the wildly sad – are the best moments of this evening.

My initial reason to apply for a ticket was Anne Sofie von Otter as Public Opinion, who is a riot. Her entire persona – including a diabolic eyebrow raise and a clap-trap hell galop to die for – works from the duality of “this is how Ingmar Bergman would have staged Kostelnicka, I have last laughed in 1982” and “I am actually Christine Baranski in Mamma Mia, don’t tell anyone, now where is my daiquiri.” And from this one daiquiri scene right after intermission – where, with just a piano, I was ready to cry again because she can still do so much with her voice and it is like it was twenty years ago, von Otter, singing, just so – she managed to build the rest of the evening in counterpoint. Of course, at first we don’t know yet it *is* a counterpoint, when she walks out and gives the first monologue in Swedish, hair in a white braid wrapped around her head and it might just as well have been a very Calvinist crown. Poor Orphée really has no chance but to traipse to hell even though he just wants to paganini his way elsewhere.

Another high point were the goddesses of Mount Olympus (and the delightfully swaggering Cupidón of Nadine Weissmann, who managed to give it just a bit of 1920 “Erda, but also actually Claire Waldorff” ooomph): the super-blonde Vénus of Léa Desandre (brilliant and jubilant in tone, and unafraid of snoring in between), the Martini-ordering, burping, floor-crawling, at waiter-leering Junon of Frances Pappas and – personal favorite – the high-top, high-strung Diana of Vasilisa Berzhanskaya  (I did not make the connection to the Amsterdam Vagaus at first) and her girlband posse that cause Jove’s intially mentioned ogling, and nobody actually believes that Acteon is a guy, right? (Jove has changed them into a stag. Perhaps he meant to say stud.)

To close out the first part, the gods – but then, right in the middle of it, a gaggle of dancers out of costume sashays across the stage, breaking one fourth wall and erecting another, complaining “no me gusta!” in the most fabulous manner – and then the gods and goddesses and everyone end up in one large choreography that is complex. And has variants. It’s tougher to parse apart than the start of a Keersmaeker routine, and they all do it, they all do it in sync and they all do it right! Even smaller, regular choreographies are so hard to put on a cast (one who has to sing meanwhile!), and to give it to a tutti? And have it be this complex, and pull it off? Wow.

Apropos choreographies and wow: we have to talk about the can-can (dazzling, clean, not too smooth in the pit overall – and when Styx yells, “Play it again, Mazzola!”, one does agree)

The can-can: a line of dancers, six women, six men. With the whiteish, stark face make-up and the large black skirts, it takes a while to tell them apart (if that would matter). And while they whirl through it, one slowly realizes: all the men have vulvas printed on their skirts, and all the women: penises. And when they raise their skirts, they have have, also crosswise, genitalia in red glitter sewn onto their bodysuits, a little above where genitalia would sit: sequined vaginas, sequined dicks. All the world’s a stage, and gender: it’s just props, people.

And then there is the can-can reprise. No wigs, so make-up, no skirts, no glitter genitalia. Just black leotards, the women with tassels on their nipples. Flesh at work, too. And they do the same choreography, with the same energy. And gender doesn’t matter at all any longer: the props and the act are gone, it’s just people. No two the same, but all humans, and they all breathe, and so does the audience.
The trappings are fun (a lot of fun, at times), but underneath? We’re dancing on the same volcano, perhaps with the same, so utterly human, defiance of that last remaining dancer on the stage, tossing himself into jumped split after jumped split until he staggers: we don’t know for how much longer, but at this moment, we are alive. And so much more than in others.

15 thoughts on “Review: The Splits and the Bees. “Orphée aux enfers” in Salzburg”

        1. There US the video, which is an approximation, at least. Lewek, Prieto and Hopp come across great, Beekman can‘t quite be done justice by the screen.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. For all its merits, the best thing about this production is that it inspired you to a review. You are as ever the ideal companion and reporter. Many thanks for the gift to our imaginings.
    “Avec quelle volupté je m’enivre des sauves émanations de cette atmosphère douce et vivitiante.”

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s