Christoph Willibald Gluck — ORFEO ED EURIDICE


I agree with you that of all my com­po­si­tions Orphée is the only accept­able one. I ask for­give­ness of the god of taste for hav­ing deaf­ened my audi­ence with my other operas.”

—Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787) writ­ing to Jean François de la Harpe in 1777


His­tory often dis­agrees with a composer’s assess­ment of his own out­put. And it’s quite pos­si­ble that Gluck, who was writ­ing to a pub­lic enemy of his work, was delib­er­ately being at least a bit face­tious in den­i­grat­ing his operas such as Alceste and Iphigénie en Aulide. But what is inter­est­ing about his state­ment is the rev­e­la­tion that even some­one who was firmly in an oppos­ing artis­tic camp could not help but admire Gluck’s opera on the myth of Orpheus.

It’s prob­a­bly not going too far to say that Orpheus (or Orfeo, or Orphée) was the god­fa­ther of opera itself. Accord­ing to Greek and Roman writ­ers, he was the son of one of the Muses and a Thra­cian prince, which makes him more than mor­tal, but less than a god. From his Muse mother he received the gift of music and became so pro­fi­cient that his “singing lyre” could lit­er­ally move rocks on the hill­side and turn the courses of rivers. When his bride, Eury­dice, died of a snake bite imme­di­ately after their wed­ding, Orpheus dared some­thing no man had ever done before. He descended into the under­world and played for the gods, ask­ing for Eurydice’s return. The gods could not resist Orpheus’s music and returned Eury­dice with one con­di­tion: that he not look at her until they had reached the upper world. As Orpheus stepped out into the sun­light, he turned to see Eury­dice, but she was still in the cav­ern, not yet in the upper world. She slipped back in the dark­ness, and Orpheus was forced to return to the earth alone. He wan­dered through the wilds of the world, des­o­late, play­ing his lyre, until a band of fren­zied Mae­nads came upon him and tore him limb from limb.

It was inevitable that a story com­bin­ing the power of love with the power of music itself would appeal to com­posers. Though his­to­ri­ans dis­agree about what, exactly, was the very first opera, Clau­dio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, first given in Man­tua in February1607, inter­twined music and poetry in a way that brought the famil­iar Orpheus myth to life with a dra­matic impact quite new to its audience.

Gluck by Duplessis

But the most famous of all Orpheus operas is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. It was first given in the Burgth­e­ater in Vienna on Octo­ber 5, 1762. By then Gluck, who was born in Ger­many and had stud­ied and worked in Italy, then Lon­don, had lived in Vienna (his wife’s home) for about 10 years. The direc­tor of the court the­aters, Count Durazzo, admired Gluck’s work and intro­duced him to two men who were deter­mined to reform their own art forms: the poet Raniero Calz­abigi and the bal­let mas­ter Gas­paro Angi­olini. The year before Orfeo, the three men had col­lab­o­rated on a dance-drama enti­tled Le fes­tin de Pierre that had sur­prised the Vien­nese pub­lic with its seri­ous retelling of the Don Juan story. Their Orpheus opera was no less a sur­prise. (Though Gluck lamented the inevitable — at the time — happy end­ing by writ­ing, “To adapt the fable to the usage of our the­aters, I was forced to alter the climax.”)

Ital­ian opera of the day had cer­tain con­ven­tions that seemed carved in stone. Most operas were set to libretti by Pietro Metas­ta­sio, or at least rigidly fol­lowed his for­mula: no cho­rus, six char­ac­ters (includ­ing a first and sec­ond pair of lovers), and the often extremely elab­o­rate arias, them­selves, often da capo arias, fol­lowed a pattern.

Gluck’s Orfeo broke all those rules. The cho­rus is an inte­gral part of the opera, which has only three char­ac­ters: Orfeo, Euridice, and Amore. Orfeo does not first appear with a heav­ily embell­ished aria dis­play­ing his voice, but with three sim­ple, yet heart-rending rep­e­ti­tions of “Euridice!” sung over a mov­ing choral lament. The story of the opera is told with a direct­ness that was rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Events unfold almost in real time, with a cumu­la­tive impact that even today can be over­whelm­ing — which is why this new pro­duc­tion will be done with­out an intermission.

In addi­tion to for­sak­ing elab­o­rately dec­o­rated, da capo arias, in favor of sim­ple, poignant vocal music that goes directly to the listener’s heart, Gluck did away with secco recita­tive accom­pa­nied by a harp­si­chord. Instead, the orches­tra plays through­out, which also helps to unify the opera into a true musi­cal drama.

Louise Homer as Orfeo

Orfeo is often cited as an exam­ple of Gluck’s inten­tion to reform opera. But his famous let­ter to Grand-Duke Leopold, in which he declared: “I sought to restrict music to its true func­tion, namely to serve the poetry by means of the expres­sion with­out inter­rupt­ing the action or dimin­ish­ing its inter­est by use­less and super­flu­ous orna­ment,” was writ­ten in 1769, as the pref­ace to his opera Alceste, seven years after Orfeo’s pre­mière. But there is no doubt that in Orfeo Gluck, the com­poser, had truly antic­i­pated Gluck the philosopher-reformer. At first, the Vien­nese pub­lic was cool to the new opera. But its unde­ni­able power won them over, and it was soon thrilling audi­ences through­out Ger­many and Scan­di­navia as well as in London.

Twelve years later Gluck com­posed a new ver­sion of Orfeo for the Paris Opéra, Orphée et Euridice, which was a huge suc­cess. Among other changes, the title role was rewrit­ten for a high tenor (in Vienna it was sung by the con­tralto cas­trato Guadagni.) Gluck also added a bravura aria for Orphée to end the first act and some addi­tional bal­let music, includ­ing the Dance of the Blessed Spir­its, for flute and strings, which become one of his most pop­u­lar instru­men­tal works. The com­poser Hec­tor Berlioz used this 1774 French ver­sion as the basis for his own 1859 rework­ing of the opera for the great mezzo Pauline Viardot-Garcia who wanted to sing the title role.

Most per­for­mances of Orfeo (or Orphée) are a com­bi­na­tion of Gluck’s two ver­sions — depend­ing on what the con­duc­tor and/or the singer doing Orfeo, feels is appro­pri­ate. As far as can be deter­mined, this new pro­duc­tion is the first time the Met has given Gluck’s orig­i­nal 1762 Orfeo.

The Met first did the opera in Boston, in 1885, in Ger­man. The first time it was done at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House was in 1891, when it served as a cur­tain raiser to Cav­al­le­ria Rus­ti­cana, and ended after Orfeo’s famous Act III aria, “Che farò.” It was finally given on its own, in the Met, on Decem­ber 23, 1909, with Toscanini con­duct­ing Louise Homer in the title role, Johanna Gad­ski as Euridice, and Alma Gluck as the Happy Shade. It was one of the great evenings in Met his­tory. Toscanini omit­ted the over­ture, and Homer added “Divini­tiés du Styx” from Gluck’s Alceste at the end of Act I. But even so, writ­ing over half a cen­tury later, Fran­cis Robin­son, an assis­tant man­ager of the Met, said, “It must have been as per­fect a pro­duc­tion as exists in the annals of opera.”

Toscanini in 1908

Toscanini went on to con­duct Orfeo 24 times at the Met; Homer sang the title role 21 times. Both remain a com­pany record. The Met has not given Orfeo all that often — open­ing night of this new pro­duc­tion will only be its 83rd per­for­mance. And it has often been com­bined with a vari­ety of other operas and bal­lets. (In 1936 the singers were rel­e­gated to the orches­tra pit while the chore­og­ra­phy of George Bal­an­chine and Pavel Tche­litchev took over the stage. It was a short-lived exper­i­ment.) But even so, it is a mas­ter­piece that has attracted some of the top artists of their time. In addi­tion to Toscanini, its con­duc­tors include Arthur Bodanzky, Wal­ter Dam­rosch, Eric Leins­dorf, Charles Mack­er­ras, Pierre Mon­teux, Bruno Wal­ter — and, now, James Levine. David Daniels will be the first coun­tertenor to sing the title role of the opera at the Met, join­ing such singers as Mar­i­anne Brandt, Grace Bum­bry, Louise Homer, Mar­i­lyn Horne, Mar­garete Matzenauer, Risë Stevens, and Ker­stin Thor­borg. Notably Euridice’s include Johanna Gad­sksi, Hilde Güden, Jarmila Novotna, and Gabriela Tucci; and Alma Gluck, Roberta Peters, and Anneliese Rothen­berger have been promi­nent Amores.

In Anne Homer’s biog­ra­phy of her mother, Louise Homer and the Golden Age of Opera, she sums up the rea­son Orfeo has remained such a pow­er­ful work for almost 250 years: “One of the mir­a­cles of this opera lay in the stark range of emo­tions. Gluck had found a way of encom­pass­ing the heights and depths of human expe­ri­ence. Side by side he had arrayed the ugly and the sub­lime — the ter­rors of the under­world,  the ‘pure light’ of inef­fa­ble bliss. With the genius of poetry and econ­omy, he had pit­ted the most deadly and fear­some hor­rors against the radi­ant power of love, and then trans­fixed his lis­ten­ers with music so inspired that they were caught up irre­sistibly in the eter­nal conflict.”

And now, a new gen­er­a­tion of opera goers will be able to expe­ri­ence this for them­selves at the Met.

This pro­gram note orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill May 2007.

 The paint­ing at the top of the arti­cle is Orfeo ed Euridice by Fred­eric Leighton, 1864.