Orfa is the penultimate of Adam’s ballets, the fruit of his many years as an opera and ballet composer. By 1860, the ballet enjoyed 51 performances in Paris.
The ballet’s choreographer was Joseph Mazilier (1801-1868), a famous dancer (1832-37) who was subsequently appointed balletmaster in 1839. He was the choreographer of some of the most famous works of French Romantic ballet.
The story of Henri Trianon and François-Ippolite Leroy in the ballet Orfa is a strange mixture of elements from Norse mythology, extremely interesting in the light of modern research on Wagner and work on the libretto of the Ring of the Nibelungs tetralogy. The ballet Valkyrien (1861) by J.P.E. Hartmann was also based on Norse myths in Denmark. These would not otherwise have been present in France until the worship of Wagner began after 1870, with a conscious imitation of the German composer in his use of Scandinavian and Arthurian mythology, as in Reyer’s Sigurd (1884).
Orfa’s story has further analogies to The Ring of the Nibelungs in its depiction of Loge (Loki in Wagner), the mischievous god of fire whom Wotan (Odin) has harnessed to his service.
The story depicts the conflict between old and new gods occurring as generations change. It harks back to antiquity and Hesiod’s Theogony (c. 700 BC) with the successful struggle of the gods against the Titans and their final victory over them.
There are other romantic themes: the abduction of a loved one by a powerful sorcerer (as in Pushkin’s 1820 Ruslan and Lyudmila), the hero’s quest to find and free his beloved. The latter is a major trope of the Orpheus tales, the archetypal descent into Hades to free Eurydice, Ruslan’s struggle against the evil Chernomor to free Lyudmilla, or Siegfried finding Brünnhilde, or Prince Siegfried freeing Odette from Rothbart’s spell, or Prince Charming waking Sleeping Beauty from her 100-year sleep.
In these plots, the young hero receives magical help from a good being, as in Carlo Gozzi’s fairy tale The Serpent Lady (1762), used by Wagner in his first opera The Fairies, 1832). The transformation of evil enchantment, in turn, is found in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 700 BC) and Aristo’s Orlando Furioso (1516).
The balletic scenario of Orfa lacks the sinister implications of dark magic that characterize other tales, but in the narrative chronology, the abduction, the quest, the beneficent aid, the magical talisman, and the eventual triumph of love blessed by the deity follow these motifs. The script provides scope for romantic adventure with mythological overtones and the possibility of stage spectacle, especially the evocation of the landscape of Iceland and scenes in the snow (something already seen in the winter scene at the Anabaptist camp in Act III of Meyerbeer’s The Prophet (1849).
Adam, working in the last period of his life, writing light and charming comic operas, showed in his later ballets a new and growing dynamism, manifest in the increased breadth and depth of his orchestral imagination and its new dramatic dimensions. This is seen in Corsair (1856), where Adam experimented with the orchestra in a way he had not done before.
Both Orfa and Corsair use the largest instrumental canvases Adam ever created, showing true orchestral mastery and dramatic amplitude. The score of Orfa conveys an extraordinary sense of movement, imagination and color of sound. The passages in the bass clarinet, playing under the ascending and descending arpeggios of the harp, are remarkable. The ballet provides great opportunities for some of the great dancers of romantic ballet. Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909), for example, with all her glamour and tempestuous temperament, was ideally suited to Orfa‘s energetic character. (The ballet’s darker, tragic elements are more in the style of Charlotta Grisi.)
The plot of the Orfa Ballet:
The action takes place in Iceland, amid a snowy plain near Reykjavik, with Mount Hecla visible in the distance above. In the foreground there is an altar and statue of Loki, the god of fire (Berthier). Orfa (Fanny Cerrito) and her fiancé Lodbrog (Lucien Petipa) have come to celebrate their upcoming wedding. Seeing an old man (Lenfant) who is teased by the crowd, Lodbrog invites him to sit by the fire and join their celebration. The sound of a harp is heard as the old man gratefully reaches over Lothbrog’s head and disappears. The priests of Loki appear to perform the marriage ceremony. As they are about to give their blessing, Loki’s statue sends lightning bolts into the air.
The priests refuse to proceed after such a dramatic omen. Lothbrog angrily swings his fist at the statue, which then begins to glow. Orfa finds herself irresistibly drawn to the pedestal, whereupon she is immediately swallowed into the ground along with the statue amidst a burst of flames. The old man suddenly reappears and gives Lodborg a golden arrow. It would enable the young man to save his beloved. The old man points the way to the distant mountains.
Loki’s palace in the heart of the mountains. A magnificent staircase leads up to a volcanic crater; all around are flowers and trees glittering with the precious stones and metals of the land. Loki enters carrying Orfa, which he lays on a diamond-encrusted couch.
At a sign from him, she comes to consciousness. In Les Séductions, the seven pleasures and vices (Bodanova, L. Marquet, M. Marquet, Rousseau, Mathé, Jendron, Féneux) are summoned to break Orfa’s resistance.
As they dance, practicing their wiles, Lodbrog appears at the top of the staircase and starts to descend. He dispatches the guards with the magic arrow, but Loki retaliates by imprisoning Orfa in a golden reed bush. He angrily curses and disappears into the ground. Now the mysterious old man reappears and invites the desperate Lodbrog to touch the reed with his golden arrow. As he does so, they are separated and Orfa is freed from her prison spell. Then Orfa herself takes the arrow and, using its magical power, restores the natural form of many young girls that Loki has turned into stones and flowers.
The old man now reveals himself as the god Odin. Valhalla appears in the background. Odin ascends the stairs to his throne, where he sits, surrounded by his divine family and lesser deities, and gives his blessing to the two lovers.
(Based on notes by Robert Ignatius Letellier, Trinity College and Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall, Cambridge)