Orphee et Eurydice,
Author: Christoph Willibald Gluck/Hector Berlioz,
Venue: La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels

Director : Romeo Castellucci
Musical director : Herve Niquet

Orphee: Stephanie d’Oustrac
Eurydice: Sabine Devieilhe
Amour : Clement Bayet/Michele Breant/Fanny Dupont

Running time : 100 minutes
Dates of run: June 17-July 2

Co-production between La Monnaie and the Wiener Festwochen

Locked-in state, or pseudo-coma, is a condition that leaves the patient fully conscious but totally paralysed.

Its extreme cruelty is a source of fascination for artistic directors for whom the idea of being robbed of self-expression and yet staying alive is the ultimate tragedy.

Julian Schnabel’s 2007 French film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) was based on journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir describing his life with locked-in syndrome.

And now Romeo Castellucci at Brussels’ La Monnaie (De Munt in Dutch) opera house takes another real-life sufferer and turns her into the heroine of Orphee et Eurydice (adapted by Hector Berlioz from Gluck).

The effect is to reaffirm the haunting power of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but the experience is more of watching a documentary than a cathartic work of art.

We are denied the luxury of escapism. Instead, we are constantly reminded of the reality of a woman lying in a hospital bed unable to move anything but her eyelids and for whom a hellish separation from her husband and family is no myth.

Her name is given only as Els. With the help of wifi technology and head phones, which we see being removed at the end of the production, she watches and listens as we do.

If Els is the real-life Eurydice, the onstage persona is Sabine Devieilhe and Stephanie d’Oustrac is her Orpheus, whose sustained power carries the rest of the all-female central cast.

The production is almost clinically stark. D’Oustrac’s Orpheus, dressed in subdued, work-a-day clothes, sometimes seated on a basic chair in the centre of the stage, pours out her heart as the story of Els emerges in white text on a screen behind and subtitles pop up at the side of the stage.

After a day staring at a screen in the office, it’s a lot of reading, and it’s the story of Els that dominates over the classical myth, although the parallels are exact.

Els was thoroughly normal. She married her youthful sweetheart, had two children and then suddenly a massive stroke paralysed her from head to foot. She has remained in that condition for more than a year.

Once the white text has laid out the basic details of her life, we see her days in images projected on to the screen. We see the world from an ambulance, shuttling between neurological centres. We see Elysian countryside in between, then seemingly endless hospital corridors that lead to the room where Els lies motionless, visited by her husband, the myth’s Orpheus.

The Belgian press unleashed a debate on the ethics of real-life subject matter, but the medical ethics committees gave their consent and so did Els through blinks of her eyes.

One of the peculiarities of locked-in syndrome is that patients who retain the power to move their eyelids can learn to communicate by blinking.

Her blinks revealed she wanted the opera to raise awareness of her condition and there is no question it has done that.

Barbara Lewis © 2014.

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