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Operapedia: Orpheus and Eurydice 

Henry Stewart brings Gluck’s monumental tragedy to life.
by Henry Stewart. 

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“[O]f all my compositions,” Gluck once wrote to a friend, “Orphée is the only acceptable one. I ask forgive\ness of the god of taste for having deafened my audience with my other operas.” Others admired it without being such drama queens. “The vast majority of listeners, at the premiere of Orphée, felt a sincere admiration for so much of the genius that’s so rampant in this old score,” Berlioz, a major Gluck admirer, wrote in his book À Travers Chants. “We found the introductory chorus of a gloominess perfectly motivated by the drama.…Orpheus’s mournful ‘Eurydice!,’ cried at intervals amid the lamentations of the chorus, is admirable.”


First Performances

The opera was first performed in Vienna in October 1762, for the name-day of Emperor Francis I. It was a success and spread throughout Europe. Gluck substantially revised it for the Paris Opera, not only using a new French libretto (based on the Italian original but expanded), adding more music and rewriting the castrato lead role for tenor (because the French—good for them—rarely used castratos) but also making it grander, in that style preferred by Parisians. Orphée et Eurydice was first heard in August 1774; today, we often hear hybrid versions of the two.

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Time and Place

“Orpheus is opera’s founder,” Peter Conrad writes in A Song of Love and Death, “and he presides over it throughout its subsequent history.” Monteverdi’s Orfeo, from 1607, wasn’t the first opera, but that’s how it’s often remembered. And Orpheus, as mythology’s most major musician, was the ideal subject for the equally major Gluck, who collapsed the traditions of opera seria and ushered in a simpler and more directly expressive aesthetic. Orpheus was also the subject of works by Haydn, Liszt, Stravinsky, Philip Glass and countless lesser composers; Offenbach’s spoof gave us the most famous of all cancans. Baz Luhrmann even said Moulin Rouge! was inspired by Orpheus—“but the connection is tenuous,” the Guardian reported.


The Basics

A singer’s wife dies. Cupid lets him retrieve her from the Underworld, but he’s not supposed to look at her. He does, so she dies again. Cupid feels bad and resurrects her after all.

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Where It Is  This Season
This month, the opera can be heard as Orpheus und Eurydike in Kiel; Orphée ed Eurydice in Iowa; and Orfeu e Eurídice in Rio. Orfeo ed Euridice makes its way to Berlin’s Staatsoper in October.


Something Completely Different

In 1975, the radical German choreographer Pina Bausch adapted the score into a ballet with each of the three soloists accompanied by a corresponding dancer. She drastically altered Gluck’s dramatic structure—and not just by removing the happy ending. This Orpheus “shows no bravery in entering the realm of the dead, bears no lyre [and] demonstrates no wonder on beholding the Elysian Fields,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in TheNew York Times in 2012. “You wonder why this Orpheus needs to be told not to look at Eurydice; he never looks at anyone anyway.”

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Surprise Showstopper
 
As much as I like “Che puro ciel,” Orpheus’s aria upon entering paradise, for its swirling, contrapuntal orchestrations—which are downright Tchaikovskian—I think the opera’s most memorable music is the hero’s duet with the Furies, “Deh placatevi con me.” Orpheus’s pleas to be admitted entrance to the Underworld are so gorgeous that you could imagine them placating real gods; the Furies’ repeated answer—“No!”—is so fiery and final that you feel the real impossibility of Orpheus’s absurd journey.

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Hit Tune

As Orpheus enters the Elysian fields in Act II, we hear the dance of the blessed spirits, which Gluck significantly expanded for Orphée as a ballet interlude. (The French required ballets within their operas.) Its central section became a fixture of Classical Greatest Hits CDs, the kind once sold at gas stations, with a heavenly sweetness that speaks across cultural and income divides; as evidence, Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes dance to it in the 2002 romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan. 

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In Pop Culture

“Che farò senza Euridice” is the great aria Orfeo sings when his gaze sends Euridice back into the underworld. It was “the first genuine smash hit in operatic history,” Louisville impresario Thomson Smillie once wrote, and it’s heard in Slumdog Millionaire while the main character and his friends steal wallets from an audience by sneaking around beneath bleachers—a kind of “underworld.” In fact, the whole Best Picture winner could be read as a riff on the myth, in which the main character is trying to reclaim the love he lost—in this case, to the criminal underworld.

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Spoiler Alerts

Gluck appended a peculiar happy ending to the familiar Orpheus myth, which has troubled many admirers. Director Wieland Wagner, Richard’s grandson, solved the problem by cutting it; his 1953 Munich production returned to the opening dirge after Orpheus’s second lament. In contrast, young composer Matthew Aucoin, who wrote a dramatic cantata based on the myth, suspects Gluck’s original ending may not be as happy as it seems—that Orpheus could’ve turned around on purpose. “Maybe Orpheus has his priorities totally out of whack, and he is … so obsessed with music that he would sacrifice even his relationship to it,” Aucoin told opera news last year.

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The Performance We Wish We'd Seen 
Berlioz adapted the opera, with an assist from Saint-Saëns, and it made its debut in Paris in 1859. Basically, it was Orphée with the best of Orfeo put back in. (Nineteenth-century composers liked rewriting Gluck; Wagner significantly revised Iphigénie en Aulide.) Berlioz also rewrote the lead for a woman; he wasn’t the first to do so, but his contralto, Pauline Viardot, became the best remembered. Many such composite versions were created, and Berlioz’s is rarely heard anymore, despite its pedigree; a modern recording exists, though, from 1989, with John Eliot Gardiner leading Anne Sofie von Otter.

 

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