- Azione teatrale in 3 acts
- Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
- 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).
Christoph Willibald Gluck, like m’colleague Phil, was fed up with opera seria. Surely opera could be more than just a Ba-rock concert?
The Bohemian composer had written twenty-odd opera seria in the proper Metastasian form. In an age when the form had become an extravagant vehicle for star singers, Gluck argued that music should serve drama, not the other way around. He called for truth and expression in opera: a return, in effect, to neo-Classical principles.
Orfeo ed Euridice is the first of his reform operas, the works that sounded the death knell of Metastasian opera, with its da capo arias, castrati, and (detractors say) subordination of drama to music. Or, to put it differently, shows where virtuoso singers entertained the punters.
Gluck was serious about making serious. He insisted, Newman claims, on the sense and dramatic interest of the recitative, on the lyrical portion being really lyrical, and on the importance of the chorus. Here, he:
- Unifies the drama. Instead of show-stopping arias separated by recitative, with the rare chorus, 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. “He links each successive piece to its predecessor,” Newman argues; “not, as formerly, by a mere juxtaposition, but causally, each dramatic moment growing out of that which preceded it.” 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” (Newman again). The recitatives are accompanied by the orchestra (stromentato), rather than only by the basso continuo (secco).
These are significant developments for opera – although critics say that Lully and Rameau influenced Gluck, while Traetta had already experimented in his works. Mozart, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz, and Wagner would all build on Gluck.
So Orfeo is a historic landmark. It’s also Gluck’s most popular work, probably due to the heart-rendingly beautiful “Che farò senza Euridice”. (The devil whispers that it’s also short – a mere hour and a half, compared to nearly three hours for Armide, and more than two hours for Iphigénie en Aulide or Tauride.)
It is, though, a long way from Gluck’s best work. Newman calls it “a mixture of extraordinary strength and extraordinary weakness”, where scenes of deathless interest and beauty exist side by side with pasags almost devoid of either musical or dramatic significance.
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.
It is (whisper it low) undramatic. This simple pastoral tale of the bereaved musician’s search for his dead wife is a far cry from the two Iphigénie operas, which focus on conflict between people, between man and the gods, and between private passions and duty.
Here, there are no subplots, and little excitement. “The dramatic interest was small,” Newman points out; “there are only two real personages and only one emotion.” The dramatis personae consist of Orpheus and his wife, who’s a) dead, and b) only appears halfway through. (Newman doesn’t count Cupid, an allegorical representation of love, as a character.)
Like many experiments, it’s halfway between the old style and the masterworks to come. Berlioz and Newman, for instance, both 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 Beethoven’s early symphonies, or Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, it announces a new way of composing, but one still sees the influence of the old style; it is not until the master’s later works that his approach finds its true, full form.
The Viennese public were at first nonplussed by such an unconventional work, but it was a triumphal success from the fifth performance, and soon travelled to Italy.
Gluck produced a French translation in 1774, with Orphée no longer a castrato but an haute-contre tenor. It was an immense success, despite a cabal which tried to fake a success for mediocre works. . “Orphée touched hearts,” Barbedette wrote; “the superiority of Gluck’s music was incontestable.”
Rousseau – who had proclaimed that nobody could write good music to French music – was taken aback, and warmly welcomed Gluck. (“I know nothing more perfect in what is called congruity, than the ensemble of the Elysian Fields. Throughout there is the enjoyment of pure and calm happiness, but with such a character of equality that there is not a trait, either in the song or in the ballet, that in any way rises into exaggeration.”) One day, however, he remembered his dictum, and changed his mind. “Don’t you see,” he told a friend, “that M. Gluck only abandoned the Italian language to contradict me?”
Marie Antoinette awarded Gluck a pension of 6,000 livres, and 6,000 more for each new work he produced. (Iphigénie en Aulide soon followed.) Mlle de Lespinasse was infatuated with the work, and lived only to hear it. “This music drives me mad; it carries me away … my soul is eager for this kind of pain.”
The Baron von Grimm was more moderate in his praise: “Orphée unites the lyrism of Pergolesi with the noble declamation of our old masters and consummates, with the vigour of his manly genius, the unison of Latin grace, German depth, and French clarity.”
- Orfeo (alto castrato)
- Amore (soprano)
- Euridice (soprano)
- Orphée (haute-contre)
- L’Amour (soprano)
- Eurydice (soprano)
SETTING: Ancient Greece
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.
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.
Orfeo (alto castrato): Gaetano Guadagni
Amore (soprano): Marianna Bianchi
Euridice (soprano): Lucia Clavereau
Orphée (haute-contre): Joseph Legros
L’Amour (soprano): Sophie Arnould
Eurydice (soprano): Rosalie Levasseur
Shepherds and nymphs – Furies and Spirits of Hell – Heros and Heroines of the Elysian Fields
- Chorus : Ah ! se intorno a quest’ urna funesta
- Recit : Amici, quel lamento aggrave il mio dolore !
- Chorus : Ah ! se intorno a quest’ urna funesta
- Recitative : Lasciatemi ! (Orfeo)
- Aria : Chiamo il mio ben così (Orfeo)
- Recitative: Euridice, Euridice (Orfeo)
- Aria: Cerco il mio ben così (Orfeo)
- Recitative: Euridice! Ah! questo nome (Orfeo)
- Aria: Piango il mio ben così (Orfeo)
- Recitative: Voi del regno delle ombre (Orfeo)
- Aria: Dalla certa tua (Orfeo)
- Recitative: Ciel! lei riveder potrò!
- Aria: Gli sguardi tratteni (Amor)
- Recitative: Che disse! (Orfeo)
- Aria: Addio, addio, o miei sospiri (Orfeo)
- Dance of the Furies
- Chorus: Chi mai dell’ Erebo
- Dance of the Furies
- Chorus: Chi mai dell’ Erebo
- Solo and Chorus: Deh placatevi con me (Orfeo, Chorus)
- Chorus: Misero giovane
- Aria: Mille pene (Orfeo)
- Chorus: Ah! quale incognito
- Aria: Aria: Men tiranne, voi sapeste (Orfeo)
- Chorus: Le porte stridano
- Dance of the Furies
- Air and Chorus: E quest’ asilo ameno a greto (Euridice)
- Recitative: Che puro ciel! (Orfeo)
- Chorus: Vieni’ a regni del riposo
- Recitative: Oh voi, ombre felici (Orfeo)
- Chorus: Torna, o bella al tuo consorte
- Recitative: Ah vieni, o diletta (Orfeo, Euridice)
- Duet: Sù, e con me vieni, cara (Orfeo, Euridice)
- Recitative: Ah! dovess’ io saper, perche ei tace tanto? (Euridice)
- Aria and Duet: Che fiero momento! (Euridice, Orfeo)
- Recitative: Ah! per me il duol ricomincia (Orfeo, Euridice)
- Aria: Che farò senza Euridice? (Orfeo)
- Recitative: Il duolo del cuore mio (Orfeo)
- Chorus, with alternate Solo: Trionfi Amore
- Trio: Gaudio gaudio son al cuore
- Introduction : Ah ! dans ce bois (Chœur des pasteurs et des nymphes)
- Air : Objet de mon amour (Orphée)
- Récit : Divinités de l’Achéron (Orphée)
- Air : Si les doux accents de ta lyre (L’Amour)
- Air : Soumis au silence (L’Amour)
- Récit et Air : Qu’entends-je ? Qu’a-t-il dit ? (Orphée)
- Chœur : Quel est l’audacieux ?
- Air avec chœur : Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs (Orphée)
- Danse des Furies
- Musique de Scène. Les Champs-Élysées
- Air et Chœur : Cet asile aimable (Eurydice ou une Ombre heureuse)
- Air : Quel nouveau ciel (Orphée)
- Chœur : Viens dans ce séjour paisible
- Récit : O vous, ombre que j’implore (Orphée)
- Chœur : Près du tendre objet qu’on aime
- Récit : Viens, viens, Eurydice (Orphée et Eurydice)
- Récit : Mais d’où vient qu’il persiste à garder (Eurydice)
- Duo : Je goûtais les charmes d’un repos (Orphée et Eurydice)
- Air : J’ai perdu mon Eurydice (Orphée)
- Récit : Ah ! puisse ma douleur (Orphée)
- Duo : Arrête, Orphée (Orphée et l’Amour)
- Air : L’amour triomphe (Orphée)
- Chœur : L’amour triomphe
Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
« La partition d’Orphée fut écrite à Vienne en 1764, sur un livret italien de Calzabigi. L’auteur sut tirer d’un des épisodes principaux des Géorgiques un poème favorable à la musique. Les situations dramatiques y sont heureusement disposées, et le souffle de Virgile y règne dans toute sa force. Le rôle d’Orphée fut écrit pour le célèbre sopraniste Guadagni. La traduction française fut faite par Moline avec assez d’habileté ; mais Gluck dut transposer la partie d’Orphée pour la voix de haute-contre du chanteur Legros, auquel il fit une concession plus regrettable encore en introduisant des notes d’agrément et des traits peu en rapport avec le caractère du rôle. Mme Pauline Viardot nous a rendu en partie les effets primitifs de la partition italienne grâce à une nouvelle transposition. Cette éminente artiste a obtenu dans cet ouvrage un succès d’enthousiasme, le plus grand peut-être de sa carrière théâtrale. Orphée forme, avec Alceste et les deux Iphigénies, les quatre assises de la gloire de Gluck. Joué à Parme, aux fêtes du mariage de l’infant, avec un succès sans précédent, cet opéra, traduit dans notre langue, obtint dix ans après le même succès à Paris ; il fut donné quarante-neuf fois de suite, au milieu de l’été.
Le premier acte s’ouvre par un chœur empreint d’une sombre tristesse, pendant lequel on rend les honneurs funèbres à Eurydice. Il est plusieurs fois interrompu par les accents déchirants d’Orphée. Le rythme produit par l’effet des syncopes est d’une invention admirable. Resté seul avec sa douleur, Orphée lui donne un libre cours. Les deux strophes , entrecoupées de récitatifs, offrent une succession de mouvements à trois et à quatre temps qui expriment bien le désordre de ses pensées. Après l’ariette charmante chantée par l’Amour, le grand air paraît un peu long et trop chargé de vocalises. Depuis la première note jusqu’à la dernière, le deuxième acte est un chef-d’œuvre complet et une des productions les plus étonnantes de l’esprit humain. Le chœur des démons : Quel est l’audacieux ! tour à tour gronde, s’irrite, éclate menaçant, s’apaise, s’éteint, comme vaincu et sympathique aux accents de la lyre d’Orphée. Quoi de plus émouvant que la phrase : Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs ? En voyant un nombreux auditoire captivé par ce sujet mythologique, l’auditoire de nos salles de spectacle, si mêlé, si distrait, si frivole, transporté moralement sur la scène, on reconnaît la puissance réelle de la musique ; le compositeur a vaincu ses auditeurs comme son Orphée a soumis les démons. Nulle part, dans aucun ouvrage, l’impression n’est plus vraie, plus saisissante. L’acte des champs Elysées a aussi ses beautés. L’air d’Eurydice, le chœur des ombres heureuses, respirent un calme, une paix, une sérénité inaltérables. Là encore Gluck a trouvé dans la science du rythme les effets les mieux appropriés à son sujet. Nous passons rapidement sur le duo qui suit et qui nous semble la partie faible du chef-d’œuvre, à l’exception de la phrase : Fortune ennemie, pour arriver à l’air incomparable : Che faro senza Euridice :
J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,
Rien n’égale mon malheur !
dans lequel le compositeur s’est surpassé. Roger l’a de nouveau popularisé et Mme Viardot l’a interprété dignement lors de la reprise de cet ouvrage qui eut lieu au Théâtre-Lyrique le 19 novembre 1859. Toutes les formes du langage ont été épuisées pour louer la stupeur, la passion, le désespoir exprimés dans cette page sublime, qui n’est égalée que par les vers du poète de Mantoue :
Vox ipsa et frigida lingua,
« Ah ! miseram Eurydicen, » anima fugiente, vocabat ;
“Eurydicen,” toto referebant flumine ripæ.
Albert de Lasalle, Mémorial du Théâtre-Lyrique, 1877
« Composé à Vienne en 1764, sur un livret italien de Calsabigi, Orphée fut traduit en français par Moline et représentée l’Opéra le 2 août 1774. Les deux principaux rôles étaient tenus par la haute-contre Legros et Mlle Sophie Arnould. — Gluck était particulièrement protégé par Marie-Antoinette, à qui il avait appris la musique. Il arrivait à Paris en réformateur. Son style, si bien approprié à ce qu’on appelait alors la tragédie lyrique, fut une révélation. L’école qui en est née a compté Méhul et Spontini parmi ses plus glorieux disciples, et elle s’est maintenue en faveur jusqu’à la venue de Rossini et de Meyerbeer. Mais nous devons à Gluck des bienfaits de plus d’une sorte : c’est lui qui imagina de faire baisser le rideau pendant les entractes ; c’est encore lui qui dota nos orchestres de la harpe et du trombone, et en bannit le cor de chasse et la flûte à bec. La légende veut même que ce soit grâce à son autorité que les violonistes ne jouent plus avec des gants en hiver. — (Voir Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de lu révolution opérée dans la musique par le chevalier Gluck, par l’abbé Leblond ; Naples et Paris, 1781 ; un vol. in-8° de 491 p. Voir aussi les Gluckistes et les Piccinnistes, un ouvrage récent de M. Desnoireterres.) — La reprise d’Orphée au Théâtre-Lyrique fut entourée de soins pieux : l’orchestre et les chœurs avaient été renforcés d’une partie du personnel du Théâtre-Italien ; les décors, très saisissants et d’un charme tout virgilien, étaient signés des grands artistes Cambon et Thierry ; Berlioz avait été engagé pour surveiller les répétitions, notamment pour rétablir le rôle d’Orphée suivant le texte chanté à la création par le sopraniste Guadagni. Mais c’est encore à Mme Viardot, interprète de ce rôle capital, c’est à l’intelligence et à la force tragique qu’elle a déployées, qu’on peut surtout attribuer le succès du chef-d’œuvre de Gluck pendant plus de cent cinquante représentations. (Voir le buste de Mme Viardot, modelé par Aimé Millet ; voir aussi, avec la « scène des Enfers », son portrait dessiné par E. Morin, dans le Monde illustré du 26 novembre 1859.) »
Ernest Newman, Gluck and the Opera: A Study in Musical History
London: Bertram Dobell, 1895
Thus Gluck by no means stood alone in his perception of the crying need for reform in the Italian opera. His crowning merit is not that perception, but the realisation of it in work, the translating it into actual reform. A thousand weary and sated hearers of the opera might see the foolishness and the hollowness of it all; Gluck alone could create something better to take its place. Already in some of his works he had shown flashes of that rich creative energy that was at the foundation of his nature. In Semiramide, Telemacco, and elsewhere, he had given proofs of a strong dramatic capacity, waiting only for a favourable opportunity for the employment of it. Naturally the first requisite was a reform in the verbal groundwork of the opera. Nothing could be done with the ordinary libretto, with its sham personages, its conventional airs and situations, its rigidity of structure, and its wearisome reiteration of words destitute of the barest dramatic or even intellectual signification. Gluck believed himself to have chosen rightly when he fixed, upon Raniero di Calzabigi to be his coadjutor in the reform of the opera. Calzabigi was an Imperial Councillor who had already earned some reputation in Europe as a critic and a man of taste; at Paris he had edited an edition of Dante, to which he had written an introduction. Gluck apparently had found in his conversation evidences of culture and understanding, and had settled upon him as the man most fitted to work with him in his new project. The result of their collaboration was the opera Orfeo ed Euridice. It is not known precisely what was Gluck’s share in the composition of the libretto, though it was certain to be a large one. Probably we shall not be far wrong in saying, with Marx, that he would insist on the sense and dramatic interest of the recitative, on the lyrical portions being really lyrical, and not the conventional “arie” of Metastasio, and on the importance of the work to be given to the chorus. In this last connection, he would in all likelihood have in his mind a vivid image of the choruses of Rameau, which he had heard in Paris, and of those of Traetta, whose Iphigenia, containing a fine chorus of Furies [See Bitter, pp. 164-177], had been performed at Vienna in 1760.
The new work was produced on the 5th October 1762. The ballet was arranged by Angiolini; the machinist was Quaglio. The part of Orpheus was given to Guadagni, a castrato who stands out in refreshing contrast to his fellows of that age by being the possessor of two qualities not usually found among them — intelligence and modesty. He entered into the spirit of Gluck’s work with perfect comprehension, and refrained from defacing the music allotted to him with any of the customary “embellishments,” the employment of which, due in the first instance to the vanity and vulgarity of the singers, had been so long consecrated by custom. Gluck’s exacting spirit showed itself at the rehearsals. More than once he came into conflict with the instrumentalists, to appease whom the Emperor’s personal influence had to be exerted: “You know, my children, what he is! But he is a worthy man at bottom.” Calzabigi himself had taken in hand the training of the singers in the action and expression necessary to the realisation of his play. The first performance naturally created astonishment and some opposition, but these gradually declined, until at the fifth rendering the position of the new work was assured. It passed out of Germany into Italy, and “at Parma itself, Traetta, one of the greatest masters of that time, certainly the most pathetic and the most ‘German’ of Italian composers, was unable to have his Armida performed ; the public wished only to hear Orfeo.” [Desnoiresterres,p. 51]
Much as Gluck wished to emancipate himself from the traditional conventionalities of the opera of this day, he was bound by these conventionalities in his choice of a subject. It was the almost universal custom to take the stories for grand opera from “classical” life, and it is from this ancient world that Gluck drew his subject; a pre-historic sun-myth was to serve as groundwork for the reformation of the opera.
He has given up the old “symphony” form of introduction; he begins the opera with an overture, which is, however, disappointing and inconclusive both from the dramatic and from the musical standpoint; from the former, because the great defect of construction of the poem of Orfeo is, its absence of any strongly marked dualism of subject, which leaves the composer without the opportunity of employing two forcibly contrasted themes; and from the latter, because it has not sufficient strength or beauty or interest to be pleasing in itself, purely as a piece of music, apart from any dramatic associations. It might have been written by Gluck in his apprentice days, when he was under the tuition of Sammartini, traces of whose influence are clearly discernible in it. Broadly speaking, he may be said to be aiming tentatively at duo-thematic treatment, but his themes are neither interesting in themselves, nor sufficiently strong in contrast to produce dramatic effect. The overture, in fact, is perfectly supererogatory; the opera would not be appreciably affected if it were removed altogether. How inconclusive and unnecessary it is, becomes strikingly evident on hearing the real introduction to the drama — the short orchestral prelude that precedes the opening chorus of the First Act. The stage shows an open plain with the tomb of Eurydice; round it are moving the shepherds and girls, bearing flowers and twigs of myrtle, and singing a chorus of mourning. Here the orchestral introduction breaks away from the characterless spirit of the overture; here the pervading spirit is unmistakably dramatic at every point. The chorus take up the same broad, sad theme, and for a moment the voice of Orpheus blends with theirs in the cry “Eurydice!” twice repeated as the mournful song continues; and a peculiarly poignant effect is created at the third utterance of the name by the singer’s voice taking a tone higher than on the two previous occasions, and by its standing out against a moving background of chords of diminished intervals, instead of blending, as before, with the chord of the minor third of the dominant. Thus in the first few moments of the opera, Gluck had shown his extraordinary faculty for realising the most striking dramatic effect by the most simple and most natural means.
The chorus conclude their sorrowful appeal to Eurydice to return, and Orpheus addresses them in a recitative, “Enough, my companions! your grief increases mine. Strew flowers about the marble tomb, and leave me; here will I remain, alone with my sorrow.” They make silent processions round the tomb, crowning it with flowers, while the orchestra gives out solemn music; then they break again into the first chorus, to the strains of which they make their exit, leaving Orpheus alone. In a short but extremely beautiful air he calls upon Eurydice to return to him. The air is more in the voluptuous Italian fashion than are the later arias we are accustomed to associate with the idea of Gluck, but is not without dramatic significance, more especially on the words, “Vain is my lament! my beloved one answers not!” Three times during the course of the aria an echo of the theme is heard from a small orchestra behind the scenes. The most serious flaw in the aria is the constant alternation of piano and forte, almost chord by chord; it is at once unnecessary and undramatic, and by forcing the expression tends to render the aria insignificant. This is one of those instances of Gluck’s employment of the usual trickery and frippery of his contemporaries, which show how hard it was for him to break completely away from the conventional style. The following recitative, “Eurydice! Eurydice! dear shade, where art thou?” is of the “accompanied” order, and more dramatic. Not only is the expression sought most carefully and patiently in the vocal part, but the orchestra is given its share in producing the general effect. Then Orpheus repeats his aria to slightly different words. A third time he sings it, and a third time breaks into recitative, this time of a more passionate character, and in parts almost lyrical. He has just declared his resolve to descend into the under-world and win back Eurydice, when Cupid appears, tells him that he has the sympathy of the gods, and that Jupiter pities him; and advises him to descend to the kingdom of the shades, where by the magic of his harp he may win back his wife. Short as this piece of recitative is—only fifteen bars—it exemplifies the studied way in which Gluck was now handling the implements of his craft. Where the least significance is given in the words, over and above their mere ordinary indicative quality, he attempts to illustrate their meaning through the orchestra, as on the words, “Lethe’s dreadful strand,” where a suggestion of the gloom of the river is given in the accompaniment.
The following recitative, in which Cupid tells him the conditions on which he will be allowed to bring Eurydice from the underworld — that he is not to look upon her face until they have come into the light of day again — is dry, unlyrical, and uninteresting. “Think over it,” says Cupid; “Farewell!” Before making his departure, however, he sings an aria, which affords an interesting illustration of the eighteenth-century method of “painting” in music; where the sense of the words changes, a complete change is made in the material characteristics of the music. Thus the first part of the aria, depicting the happiness of the man who bows patiently to the will of the gods, is a rather broad melody in 3/4 time, in the key of G, sostenuto; in the second part, Cupid tells Orpheus of the joys that await him, and to paint this Gluck converts the sostenuto into an andante (piano), changes from the former key to that of D and from the 3/4 time into a very tripping 3/8 time, made even more dactylic in character by the strong accent on the first note of each phrase, and prefixes to almost every bar an ornamental triplet figure; the purpose of all this being to convey through the ear a picture of the joys that are spoken of in the words. This change from one theme to another takes place five times, the same theme being always used to accompany the same words. That occasional imperfection of the lyrical sense also that is noticeable in Gluck betrays itself here. There is a peculiar awkwardness about the conclusion of the second theme ; by setting the words to this 3/8 time he finds himself, at the end of them, just one step off the tonic conclusion of his theme, considered as a musical phrase. The consequence is, that he has to conclude a symmetrical sweep of four bars with another bar that seems to need still another to balance it; and the effect of this make-weight conclusion is inexpressibly awkward; it suggests the pedestrian difficulties of an animal encumbered with an extra and superfluous leg.
Cupid retires, and Orpheus debates within himself, in a recitative that is both dramatic in intention — the intervals between the notes being greater than in any of the previous recitatives — and accompanied in a descriptive way by the orchestra, which also concludes the act.
The Second Act shows the under-world; the ground is broken by abysses; heavy clouds come floating down, riven every now and then by lurid bursts of flame. After a ballet, the Furies break into a chorus, in octaves — “Who is the mortal who dares approach this place of dread?” — strongly and decisively written. Then follows another ballet, the music to which is amongst the most effective ballet-music Gluck has written; after which the question of the chorus is repeated, this time with an extension; while through the orchestral accompaniment is heard incessantly the howling of Cerberus. Without any pause, the music leads into a short prelude for the harp, to which accompaniment Orpheus lifts up his voice in passionate entreaty. This is the marvellous scene that after the lapse of a century and a quarter has not lost one atom of its original force and beauty: that is among the most remarkable dramatic productions of that or any other age; and which alone would suffice to give to future generations some indication of the wonderful power of Gluck, if all were lost of his work but this. It is almost impossible to speak with undue admiration of this supple, fluent melody, with its piercing anguish of entreaty, the admirable leading up, time after time, to the word of supplication, and the dramatic decision of the No! of the Furies, which, in the middle portion of the air, where the word is pronounced on the B natural, is positively appalling. Nor is the succeeding chorus one whit inferior. There is something of the highest psychological expression in the passage in which, after warning the wretched intruder of the horrors that infest the place, they ask, “What wouldst thou, poor youth? What wouldst thou?” The orchestra takes up a short theme that seems by unconscious and subtle suggestion to lead us out of the immediate present, to throw our minds forward into the later development of the scene; it is one of those rare psychological moments that are the triumph of dramatic art. Repeating the word “What?” the suppressed rage of the Furies breaks out again in lurid passion. The reply of Orpheus, “In my breast are a thousand torments; hell itself is within me, its fires are burning in my heart,” is as fine and as pregnant with musical beauty and as significant with dramatic meaning as his previous entreaty. The Furies reply in subdued tones, expressive of the power his song is beginning to exert on them, “What magic in him overcomes our rage?” Finally they throw open the gates to him, and their voices die down to exhaustion and submission, while the orchestra continues their previous theme.
The scene changes to the Elysian fields. Some of the happy spirits are performing a ballet, in accordance with eighteenth-century ideas of the occupations of happy spirits |in Elysium, while Eurydice and the chorus sing of the quiet joys of their abode. Meanwhile Orpheus has entered, and expresses his wonder at the beauty of the scene; “How pure the light!” His melody is something between aria-form and that of recitative (Gluck has marked it quasi recitativo); and, considered from a purely musical standpoint, it is among the finest of his creations; it has that unity and consistency that are so noticeable in his later works, especially in the scene in Armida’s garden and in the first scene of Iphigenia in Tauris. Particularly fine is the effect of the constant modulation of the beautiful theme for the oboe.
On his asking the chorus for Eurydice, they reply, in a charming ensemble, that she is now approaching. The Act draws to a close with a beautiful ballet, reminding us in parts of the sweetest ballet-music in Paris and Helen, and a chorus. Seizing the hand of Eurydice, but without looking into her face, Orpheus hastens away with her.
The Third Act shows the pair in a labyrinthine cave. Orpheus is still leading her by the hand, and his face is still turned away from hers; he will answer nothing to her questions, but reiterates his entreaty to hasten onward. But her suspicions have been aroused by his averted face; she is beginning to doubt his passion, and all his entreaties are of no avail. It is curious to notice how Gluck is hampered here by the material he has chosen to work in. Time after time there seem to be struggling through the bald recitative a passion and a dramatic power that cannot find their full realisation in such a medium. As it is, just where the feelings of the personages demand lyrical treatment, Gluck is tied down, by a convention from which he cannot free himself, to a form of musical speech that is the very negation of all lyrical expansion. Thus at one point of the dialogue we have the following:—
EURYDICE. But my delight at beholding you again,—you, alas, share it not.
ORPHEUS. O doubt not, but … know … hear me… Oh sad fate! Dear Eurydice, tarry no longer here.
EURYDICE. Why are you sad, when rapture surrounds us?
ORPHEUS. It has happened as I foresaw! And yet I must keep silence!
Now this speech of Orpheus is a kind of crisis of feeling in the dialogue, and no expression that the composer could put into it could be too deep or too sorrowful. Yet by reason of having chosen to write this part in recitative, Gluck can do no better than set to these important words the well-known conventional form of recitative conclusion, a fall of the voice from the tonic to the dominant, followed by a close, in the accompaniment, from dominant back again to tonic. His neglect of the emotional possibilities of this passage, and his abandonment of it to the most meaningless formalism that recitative can offer, is the more inexplicable in view of the fact that his setting of the very next words of Eurydice, “Wilt thou not embrace me? not speak to me?” etc., is strongly dramatic and passionate, and the recitative is on its way again to lyric warmth and fervour. The remainder of the recitative in this scene is alternately passionate and conventional, and on the two occasions on which the words, “O follow and be silent,” are repeated, Gluck, as previously, puts no dramatic force whatever into them.
The lovers now break into open rupture. The voices, which commence in dialogue, soon blend in a duet, which, from a musical point of view, is one of the best numbers in the opera, but the dramatic signification of which is incessantly waxing and waning, some passages of meaning being neutralised by unnecessary repetition. Gluck, in fact, was here unconsciously in the dilemma that always attended his later consciously-pronounced theory of the opera; he was hovering irresolutely between an essentially musical method that made more exclusively for formal aesthetic gratification, and an essentially dramatic method in which purely musical gratification was to be subordinated to the more intellectual effects of declamation.
Eurydice breaks loose from Orpheus, and bursts into an aria, in which Gluck again alters the external characteristics of the music at every moment; the aria is alternately allegro, lento, allegro, andante, 2nd andante, allegro. Yielding to her entreaties, however, he at length looks at her, and immediately she feels the pangs of death upon her again. Her cry, “O ever beloved! O great gods, I tremble, I sink, I die!” is very fine. A recitative for Orpheus leads into the well-known Che farò senza Euridice? in which we have something of a reminiscence of the Orpheus of the first act. Then, just as he is about to slay himself, Cupid again appears, and tells him that the gods have had sufficient proof of his fidelity. Eurydice rises again, and ballets celebrate the happy issue of their trials. The ballet-music is not specially noticeable, with the exception of the charming gavotte — which may be a reminiscence of the composer’s early days of wandering among the country people — and the rather pretty opening phrase of the succeeding andante in D. The work concludes with a trio and chorus of rather commonplace character.
Such was the opera with which Gluck began his great reform. It is a mixture of extraordinary strength and extraordinary weakness. The beginning and the end, the overture and the finale, are especially vacuous and futile; and Berlioz is right in speaking of the “incroyable niaiserie” of the overture. Within the opera itself, again, as has been pointed out in the foregoing analysis, scenes of deathless interest and beauty exist side by side with passages almost devoid of either musical or dramatic significance. Gluck, in fact, was in a double dilemma, that of effecting a compromise between the musical and the dramatic interests in the lyrical portions, and that of striking a genuine balance between ordinary speech and pure lyrism in the recitatives. Thus his practice, like his subsequently-expressed theory, was vitiated from the outset by fallacy and contradiction; as will appear later, these were necessary results of his hovering irresolutely between two courses of action — between real expression of the emotional life of his own day in lyrical forms, actually and naturally created by this emotional life, and a fictitious expression, forced on him by the usual practice at that time of imitating a supposititious antiquity. Under such circumstances as these it was inevitable that Gluck’s opera-style should be always contradictory both of itself and of his written theories.
In spite of this, however, he had really achieved much in Orfeo. Though he preserved the old antagonism between aria and recitative, he yet aimed straight and strongly at the improvement of the latter, and at giving it a real place in the development of the opera, instead of making it, as in the conventional style, mere padding to fill up the spaces between the airs. This, of course, was a reform he had really in part attempted much earlier. In Telemacco he had already given a hint of what he could do in accompanied recitative. In Orfeo, however, he applies the principle more rigorously, by writing accompanied recitative throughout, and thus giving increased significance to the orchestra. A similar reform was effected in the aria by relinquishing, in most cases, the stereotyped da capo form, which, although not without its usefulness and its meaning in many places, was so palpably artificial in its ordinary employment as to be quite against the possibility of dramatic effect. That Gluck uses it occasionally here and in other places, and with success, is a proof that there is nothing essentially undramatic in the da capo, but that its employment must be strictly regulated by the contents of the aria. Nothing, for instance, could exceed the impressive effect of the return to the first subject in the aria of Iphigenia, O toi qui prolongeas mes jours. But Gluck’s increasing perception of the possibilities open to free emotional outpouring, and his growing seriousness in relation to his art made him employ the da capo form very sparingly, and substitute for it a form that was more unfettered, more direct, and more continuous. This reform almost necessarily begat another: the giving of greater unity to the drama by linking each successive piece to its predecessor; not, as formerly, by a mere juxtaposition, but causally, each dramatic moment growing out of that which preceded it. Here, again, Gluck had reached out tentatively to this reform on previous occasions, notably in Telemacco. That even in Orfeo he was prevented from carrying out each of these new methods to completer excellence, was due, in part at least, to the weaknesses in the construction of the libretto. No composer can write dramatic music to an undramatic situation, and it is the misfortune of Orfeo that the interest of the play degenerates at the end. Apart from the absurdity of Cupid’s whole existence and appearance in the opera — for no study of character whatever is possible in the case of a mere allegorical personage such as this — his final coming as deus ex machinâ to give the completing touch to the drama is weak in the extreme. The ending of Orfeo is an “excursion in anti-climax;” the real end of the interest of the play is at the swooning of Eurydice.
Newman discusses the Parisian revision:
He at once set to work upon his second opera, having resolved to produce Orfeo upon the Parisian stage. Several alterations were necessary; as there were no castrati in Paris, the title-part had to be recast for a counter-tenor instead of a contralto, and, as Fétis remarks, it thereby lost “that character of profound melancholy that suited the subject so well.” This change, by altering the key throughout the music of Orpheus, necessarily altered the meaning and the impression throughout. In the opening chorus, the effect of the exquisite call “Eurydice!” was utterly spoiled. The beautiful aria in F, in the first act, was transposed into C, and Che farò, conversely, from C into F; while the chorus of the Furies in the second act was altered from C minor into D minor. Moreover, as Legros refused to sing the part of Orpheus unless he had the opportunity of making a brilliant exit in the first act, a new aria was inserted for him — L’espoir renaît dans mon âme — by a composer named Bertoni.
Orphée et Eurydice was produced 2nd August 1774, and met with a success surpassing even that of Iphigenia in Aulis, by reason of its simpler and more emotional character. The journals, letters, and memoirs of the time are filled with eulogies of it. Corancez, Rousseau, Voltaire, Mile, de Lespinasse, all recorded their opinions in enthusiastic language.*
* See Journal de Paris, No. 231, 18th Aug. 1788. Rousseau, “Œuvres,” xii. 413-420, etc.; Voltaire, “Œuvres—Lettre au Chevalier de Lisle,” 27th May, 1774, etc.; “Lettres de Mlle. Lespinasse,” p. 148, etc.
“‘I know nothing more perfect,’” says the Journal de Paris in 1788, quoting Rousseau, “‘in what is called congruity, than the ensemble of the Elysian Fields in the opera Orphée. Throughout there is the enjoyment of pure and calm happiness, but with such a character of equality that there is not a trait, either in the song or in the ballet, that in any way rises into exaggeration.’ Praise so well merited in the mouth of a man like Rousseau appeared to me too flattering to be kept from the chevalier Gluck. ‘My lesson,’ he replied, is written in the picture Eurydice makes of the abode of the blest:
Rien ici n’enflamme
Une douce ivresse
Un calme heureux dans tous les sens.
“‘The happiness of the just,’ he added, ‘must chiefly consist in its continuity, and therefore in its equableness; that is why what we call pleasure can have no place there; for pleasure is susceptible of different degrees; it becomes blunted, too, and in the end produces satiety.’” *
* Journal de Paris as above. See Desnoiresterres, p. 112.
The opera had a long run at Paris, and even passed again into Germany in its Gallicised form.