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Orpheus - Choreography for 9 dancers and 7 musicians
Music by Tchaikovsky, Yvan Talbot, Monteverdi, Gluck, Glass, Francesco Durante, Giovanni Felice Sances, Giuseppe Maria Jacchini, Byrd, Luiz Bonfá, La Secte Phonétik and Sergio Balestracci
Choreography by Dominique Hervieu and José Montalvo
Production by Marie-Pierre Bousquet
rec. Théâtre National de Chaillot, 2010
Sound format: PCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Resolution: 1080i High Definition
Region: worldwide
ARTHAUS MUSIK Blu-ray 108124 [78:00]

Choreographers José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu offer an extravagant interpretation of one of the greatest myths between opera and musical, combining dance, song, text and image. In this story with many faces, scores of Monteverdi, Gluck and Philip Glass accompany the hero as he turns into a one-legged hip-hop dancer or into an acrobat on stilts. [From the promotional text on the rear cover of the disc's packaging.]

Well, it's not exactly going to be Swan Lake, then. In fact, I'm not sure what the target audience for this disc is. If, however, the considerable enthusiasm exhibited by the Paris audience at the end of the performance is anything to go by, there's certainly going to be one.

I must begin, though, by pointing out that the way in which this disc is presented seems somewhat confused. While its front cover describes Orpheus as "Choreography for 9 Dancers and 7 Musicians", Vesna Mlakar's booklet text describes it as "a choreographic chamber opera". Those do seem to be rather different concepts to me.

Quite apart from that initial puzzle, the work's eclectic musical mix might also serve to discombobulate some potential purchasers. Putting Tchaikovsky, Monteverdi, Gluck, Glass and Byrd - a disparate enough crowd in their own right - to one side, the other contributing composers may not necessarily be ones who often engage MusicWeb International readers' or reviewers' attention. Contemporary composer Yvan Talbot is known for his interest in traditional African instruments, while the Brazilian composer/performer Luiz Bonfá (1922-2001) remains most associated with jazz and popular music - indeed, one of his songs actually made it into an Elvis Presley movie. La Secte Phonétik, meanwhile, is a trio of French singers whose contemporary street-cred is sufficiently indicated by the title of their 2009 opus La réunion des text addicts.

The other musical contributors might be good options if you ever have to write pub quiz questions based on lesser-known Italian composers. Francesco Durante (1684-1755) worked in Naples, while Giovanni Felice Sances (c.1600-1679) began his career in Italy before moving to Vienna. Bologna turns out to have been the home of Giuseppe Maria Jacchini (1667-1727), a performer and composer with a special affinity for the cello. At first glance, Sergio Balestracci's date of birth - 1944 - appears to make him an odd man out in this company, but, as he turns out to be something of a specialist in the study of baroque composers and their music, he probably counts Durante, Sances and Jacchini as old friends.

It's apparent that there are plenty of very different musical styles here - and that's not to mention those intervals when they are supplanted by a cacophony of roars, squawks, screeches and other sounds more appropriate to a zoo than a theatre. Returning to the music per se, however, I wonder how admirers of Byrd's Elizabethan polyphony will take to what Bonfá's Wikipedia entry describes as his "bold, lyrical, lushly orchestrated, and emotionally charged samba-canção style"? Or how the devotees of La Secte Phonétik - whom I found described on another website as "a la croisée du rap, du slam et du human beatbox" - will react to the music of Gluck or, for that matter, Tchaikovsky?

If even the most open-minded of us might find it hard to digest this alphabet soup of musical history, perhaps Orpheus's overall concept and/or the dancing itself will serve to unify its disparate elements into a coherent artistic whole?

When it comes to the overall concept of the piece, it isn't necessarily an easy one to grasp. While one might suppose that the familiar Greek fable of Orpheus, his music and his beloved Eurydice would offer a relatively secure handle on what's going on, that isn't always the case. The booklet notes, however, attempt to turn what some will perceive as a sow's ear into a silk purse. Orpheus's creators, we are told, "deny their novel production the rigours of a linear plot, opting instead to view Orpheus through a prism, playing with elements of the optical illusion". This, it's explained, is because "the myth can serve as a symbol for a contemporary situation", while the whole piece itself is "an opulent explosion of surrealist impressions". When someone writes about symbols and surrealist expressions, it's pretty clear that any intention of conveying "reality", at least in the most obvious sense, has taken a back seat.

Perhaps, then, the dancing itself will be the element that helps unify the piece? Choreographers Dominique Hervieu and José Montalvo are, so we learn from Ms. Mlakar's booklet notes, a "creative duo with a passion for Dadaism" whose work references "ballet (pointe technique), Baroque dance, modern and contemporary dance, hip-hop, break dance and an African combination of dance and song". Probably its most striking elements are those reminiscent of the sort of breakdancing that you might encounter as you leave the Royal Festival Hall after attending a rather more conventional symphony concert. At the extremely high level of execution that we see on this disc, that undeniably requires practitioners of the greatest technical skill and energy. Their performances, frequently enhanced by some rather quirky back-projected film sequences, certainly pack a strong visual punch, none more so than when some company members make occasional forays - on pneumatic stilts - among the understandably surprised occupants of the front stalls.

Hervieu/Montalvo's radical and highly individual approach renders objective assessment a difficult exercise. Whereas a classical ballet critic can measure physical and artistic technique against strict rules and requirements laid down over several centuries, reaction to something like this has to be pretty much subjective and very personal. If you like dance to convey sublime beauty and grace, then Orpheus probably isn't for you. Similarly, if you appreciate the choreography of Bournonville, Petipa, Ashton or others working in ballet's more obviously classical tradition, maybe you should give it a miss. If it's raw energy and enthusiasm - and perhaps a sense of breaking new ground - that most appeals, then you may well come to share the excitement that infected many in the audience on the night this film was recorded.

I suspect, however, that the way in which the performance is seen will be an important determinant of one's reaction to it. Watched live as part of a shared experience in a theatre, the visceral effect of its sheer energy and theatricality might well win some over. However, scrutinised closely at home in an atmosphere of greater critical detachment, what others may see as its drawbacks and sheer gimmickry could become more apparent.

I leave you with the admittedly partisan - but deliciously quotable - Ms. Mlakar's assessment that this production as a "refreshingly open structure, filled with cultural crossovers, scenic layering and nested content". If that particular language resonates with you, then you should give this Orpheus a try. If it doesn't, you can with clear conscience see the whole thing as a triumph of style over substance and may thereby choose, in so doing, to remain in blissful ignorance of the arcane mysteries of the samba-canção style, the slam and the human beatbox.

Rob Maynard