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.