ORFEO ED EURIDICE / ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE
Libretto : Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 5 October 1762
Revised: Orphée et Eurydice, Académie Royale de Musique (seconde salle du Palais Royal), Paris, 2 August 1774, with a French text by Pierre Louis Moline. Berlioz prepared another version in 1859, for the contralto Pauline Viardot (the first Fidès in Meyerbeer’s Prophète).
The opera is based on the Greek legend of the musician Orpheus, son of Apollo and Calliope, the Muse of eloquence and epic poetry. Orpheus’s lyre-playing could charm the beasts and birds, the trees and rocks. His wife Eurydice, fleeing from the shepherd Aristæus (in some versions, a satyr), was bitten by a snake, and died. The distraught musician vowed to rescue her from the Underworld. His music thawed even the cold hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to let her go – on the condition that he not look at her until they had returned to the world of mortals.
Orpheus led Eurydice through the gloomy caverns of Hades, she silently following. At the last, with the gateway to the Earth in sight, he could not resist the temptation, and turned back. He saw Eurydice, and she died – a second time, and forever.
In his grief, Orpheus forswore the company of women, and refused to worship any god except his father Apollo, the sun. As he wandered disconsolately singing his lament, he was set upon by Mænads, the followers of Dionysus, and torn to pieces. The women threw his remains into the river Hebrus, and his head and lyre floated downstream, still pouring out their song of grief.
Gluck’s opera has a happier ending.
Act I: In a forest of laurels and cypress trees, shepherds and nymphs mourn Eurydice. Orpheus laments his wife’s death.
Cupid tells Orpheus that the gods have taken pity on him; he can descend into Hades and try to bring his wife back. Orpheus resolves to make the attempt.
Act II: The underworld. A frightening, rocky landscape. In the distance, a thick, dark smoke rises, and flames burst out of the ground.
Orpheus approaches a group of terrifying spectres and spirits…
His music sways them, and they let him enter Hades. He comes to the Elysian Fields, abode of the virtuous dead, where the Blessed Spirits enjoy the charms of the afterlife. There, he comes face to face with his wife.
Act III: Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the underworld’s dark caverns and maze of twisty little passages. Because her husband will not look at her, Eurydice fears that he does not love her. Death, she feels, is preferable to a life of suffering.
Orpheus, unable to resist her tears, looks at her – and she falls dead. He expresses his grief in the opera’s most famous aria:
He is about to stab himself when Cupid stops him. Orpheus has proven his steadfastness and his faith, and so the god brings Eurydice back to life. In a magnificent temple dedicated to love, all celebrate Eurydice’s return to life, and the victory of true love.
Orfeo is a classic. (Or, given the Greek myth, a Classic.) It’s the first of Gluck’s reform operas, the works that sounded the death knell of Metastasian opera, with its da capo arias, preening castrati, and subordination of drama to music. Or, to put it differently, shows where virtuoso singers entertained the punters.
Gluck was serious about making opera serious. Here, he:
- Unifies the drama. Instead of long formal arias and choruses, separated by recitative, Gluck mixes them all together (notably in the opera’s first scene). This loosens the opera’s structure, so that it moves swiftly and easily. Content, as Sondheim would say a couple of centuries later, dictates form.
- Made recitatives more dramatic. They’re part of the opera, rather than “as in the conventional style, mere padding to fill up the space between arias” (Ernest Newman). The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra (stromentato), rather than just by the basso continuo (secco). Iphigénie en Tauride will show just how innovative Gluck’s use of the orchestra can be, depicting the characters’ emotions rather than describing their actions.
These are hugely important historical developments (although critics say that Rameau and Lully influenced Gluck). Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner will all build on Gluck.
So Orfeo is historically important. It’s also Gluck’s most popular work, probably due to “Che farò senza Euridice”, one of the most heart-rendingly beautiful arias in opera. (The devil whispers that it’s also short – a mere hour and a quarter, compared to nearly three hours for Armide, and two hours each for Iphigénie en Aulide and en Tauride.)
It is, though, a long way from Gluck’s best work. There are, besides “Che farò”, wonderfully imaginative passages: the lament that opens the opera; the whole Furies scene; and the serene Dance of the Blessed Spirits, as blissed-out as it is blessed.
But the opera is (whisper it low) undramatic. This pastoral tale is a long cry from the two Iphigénie operas, which focus on conflict between human beings, between man and the gods, and between private passions and duty. (I have yet to hear Armide, supposedly one of Gluck’s masterpieces.)
Here, there are no subplots, and little excitement. As Newman says, “the dramatic interest was small; there were only two real personages and only one emotion”. Newman doesn’t count Cupid, an allegorical representation of love, as a character; otherwise, the cast consists of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, who’s a) dead, and b) only appears halfway through.
Like many experiments, it’s halfway between the old style and the masterworks to come. Both Berlioz and Newman, for instance, believed that Gluck hadn’t quite escaped from the customs of the time. (O tempora, O moray, as the man said when the eel bit him.)
Like Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable or Beethoven’s early symphonies, it announces that here is a new way of composing, but one can still see the influence of the old style; it’s not until the master’s later works that his approach finds its true, full form.
Check out Gramophone’s Orfeo discography.
Vienna version (with counter-tenor): John Eliot Gardiner’s 1991 Philips / Decca recording, with Derek Lee Ragin (Orfeo), Sylvia McNair (Euridice), and Cynthia Sleden (Amor), with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.
Vienna version (with mezzo): René Jacobs’ 2001 Harmonia Mundi recording, with Bernarda Fink (Orfeo), Verónica Cangemi (Euridice), and Maria Cristina Kiehr (Amor), with the Freiburger Barockorchester and the RIAS Kammerchor, Berlin.
Paris version: Marc Minkowski’s 2004 Archi CD recording, with Richard Croft (Orphée), Mireille Delunsch (Eurydice), Marion Harousseau, and Claire Delgado-Boge, with Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble.