“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.
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.
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 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.