Online opera guide & synopsis to Gluck’s ORFEO ED EURIDICE
Orfeo is the oldest opera that has been in the repertoire without interruption and is one of the most influential works in the history of opera. And with “che faro senza Euridice” he has succeeded in creating the first mega-hit in operatic history.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Che faro senza Euridice (J’ai perdue Euridice)
Ranieri de Calzabigi, based on Greek mythology.
The main roles
Orfeo, Attic singer (alto or tenor) - Euridice, Orfeo's lover (soprano) - Cupid, god of love (soprano)
ARCHIV, Richard Croft, Mireille Delunsch, Marion Harousseau conducted by Marc Minkowski and Les musiciens du Louvre.
The legend of Orpheus inspired many musicians
Hardly any other material has been set to music so often as the legend of Orpheus, the great musician of Greek mythology. Monteverdi already used this text to found a new form of music, his “dramma per musica”. Gluck and his librettist did the same as Monteverdi and used the elementary power of this material. With “Orpheo ed Euridice” they created their first reform opera, took a giant step into the future and rang the death knell for the baroque opera seria.
Opera seria dies of stereotyping
In the first forty years of his life Gluck was literally active as a musician throughout Europe. He gained a deep insight into the opera practice of the continent. His impression was that musical theatre suffered from the stencil-like nature of the characters and the sometimes grotesque nature of the plots. To this end, the works were sung by singers who sometimes decorated the music beyond recognition. Drama, ethics and real feelings had disappeared from the stage.
Pietro Metastasio stood for this style in the 18th century, whose libretti were set to music several times by many composers. Thus Metastasio’s work became a style-forming work. From 1730 Metastasio’s place of work was Vienna, which also made him enormously influential in the German-speaking world. Even Mozart set Metastasio’s material to music (La clemenza di Tito and il re pastore).
Calzabigi, the librettist of the reform operas – the drama as a basis
To counter this, Gluck was first of all dependent on a suitable librettist, a real dramatist and lyricist. He found him in the person of Raniero de Calzabigi. The Italian Calzabigi wrote for the German composer among others because he was repelled by the noisy and chaotic Italian theatre business. As late as 1778 he wrote about the Neapolitan audience: “Who would think of performing a Greek tragedy in front of such an idiotic audience?
Gluck and Calzabigi’s new scheme
So what is the new approach of Gluck and Calzabigi called “reform opera”? For the sake of readability, you find the most important innovations compared to the opera seria of Metastasio in tabular form.
|Opera seria (At Glucks time)||Reform opera|
|Expression||Affect, Virtuosity||True feeling|
|Priority||Music before words
|Word before Music
|Action||Many acting roles
Intrigues, complications, stereotypes
|few acting roles
|Choir||only background||as acting person|
|only during reicitative||ongoing, scenic|
|Form||Secco Recitative – da capo aria||Composed through with Recitative and aria|
The endlessly long (and boring) secco recitatives were dropped, recitatives were through-composed and kept short. The dominant da capo aria (ABA’) was also eliminated. While the singers left the composer’s music in the A part more or less in the original, the A’ part was left to the taste of the (vain) singers with coloratura, cadenzas and ornamentation.
By reducing the number of characters, the individual roles became more important. This is particularly visible in Orfeo; the protagonist Orfeo is on stage throughout the performance.
The Vienna version
Gluck wrote the first Orfeo version in Italian for the 1762 season. The opera was well received, but was not a real success. Gluck presented a short, purified drama of classical character. The audience was used to historical heroic material rather than classicistic mythological material. All this seemed to be too big a step for the baroque audience and was partly perceived as brittle and unadorned.
Gluck still retained certain elements of the opera seria. The leading role was sung by a castrato, a deus ex-macchina provided a lieto fine and the instrumentation was in keeping with the customs of the time.
The Parisian version of 1774 and 1859
Ten years later Gluck followed the Austrian princess Maria Antonia (his singer pupil) to Paris where she married the Dauphine Louis, who was crowned Louis XVI a little later. There Gluck was to win the parisian audience with his Iphigénie en Aulide. Half a year later, he doubled up with the new version of Orfeo, now in the French guise of “Orphée et Euridice”.
The difference between the Viennese and Parisian versions was enormous. For the sake of legibility, the most important changes are shown in tabular form, along with the third version, the so-called Berlioz version:
|Voice fach Orpheus||Alto-Castrato||Haut-Contre
|Basso||Cembalo||Low strings||Low strings|
The Paris Adaptation
First of all, the most striking feature was that Gluck used a haut-contre for the leading role, a tenor with a very high tessitura instead of the castrato. This changed the keys and registers of the whole opera and thus changed it significantly. Gluck wrote the role for the french tenor Joseph Legros, a formidable actor and tenor with astonishing heights. This aspect became a boomerang for the international expansion of the work, as it was difficult to find suitable tenors.
The second major change concerned the dance scenes. Gluck massively increased the number of ballet scenes. On the one hand this was due to the local, dance-crazy taste, but also to the fact that the length of the Viennese version was clearly too short for an evening at the opera, with a little more than one hour. In total Gluck added 10 new numbers, much of which he took from earlier works.
The Berlioz version
The young Berlioz found a biography of Gluck in his father’s library. This first contact with Gluck ignited his enthusiasm and he studied Gluck’s music throughout his life. Before he had the opportunity to see and hear the Orphée on stage for the first time in 1824, he had studied the work with the score intensively. He was shocked when he realised how far the performed version had differed from the printed version of the 1774 version.He wanted to do something about it, but it should take another 35 years until he himself staged a revival in the Parisian Théatre lyrique. He was able to get the famous Alto Pauline Viardot for the leading role, instead of the usual cast of a Haut-Contre.
Berlioz (supported by Camille Saint-Saens) took from Gluck’s Parisian version most of the parts where Orpeus does not sing. For Orpheus passages he used the Viennese version with the instrumentation of the French version. For the leading role he chose the famous alto Pauline Viardot-García, who Berlioz eagerly supported. The premiere of this version was an overwhelming success. From then on, the opera became the domain of women.
The jumble of versions
From hardly any other opera there more versions than this work. Even Gluck repeatedly adapted the opera to local customs (i.e. singers) during performances. The practice of the following 200 years showed that the productions generously mixed the versions and thus made almost every single performance a unique one.
This opera guide uses more or less the Berlioz version, which includes the most charming pieces.
ORFEO ED EURIDICE ACT I
Synopsis: Eurydice lies buried in a grove, bitten by a poisonous snake.
Even the prelude is astonishing. Euridice is laid out in the forest, but the music is festive.
Ouverture – Gardiner
Synopsis: Orpheus laments her death passionately while shepherds and nymphs decorate the fresh grave. According to the ancient rite, the fire of the torch is extinguished, symbol of the marriage bond between Orpheus and Eurydice which has been cut by death.
The music changes with the appearance of Orpheus into dreary realms. Heavy trombones imitate funeral music. The choir is repeatedly overshadowed by Orpheus’ lamentations.
Ah, dans ce bois tranquille et sombre – Minkowski
Orpheus’ heavenly lament
Synopsis: Orpheus sends everyone away to be alone with his grief and says farewell to his Eurydice.
For the farewell Gluck composed a touching but not lachrymose aria.
We hear a great recording from the fifties with the tenor Leopold Simoneau, who was able to master a high tessitura.
Objet d’amour – Simoneau
Synopsis: He does not want to live without her.
Accablé des regrets
Synopsis: He decides to go into the underworld to snatch Eurydice from the realm of the dead. Cupid, an angel of love appears, announcing that Jupiter is moved by his grief and grants him the right to descend into the underworld. But Jupiter makes one condition, he must not look at her, otherwise he will lose her forever.
Soumis au silence – Harousseau
The great bravura aria
Synopsis: Orpheus is at the same time euphoric that Eurydice is going to live but depressed because he is not allowed to touch or look at her. He is ready to face the dangerous adventure.
This aria is a classic bravura aria. In fact, it should have no place in this reform opera, but Gluck probably wanted to grant the aria to the first Orphée, Joseph Legros, a classical coloratura aria with long coloratura runs and coloratura cadenza.
Berlioz wanted to throw this aria out of his version because he was convinced that it had not been written by Gluck himself, but by Bertoni (which is no longer suspected nowadays).
The great cadenza at the end of the aria was created by Pauline Viardot with the help of Berlioz and Saint-Saens.
Amour, viens rendre à mon ame – Verrett
ORFEO ED EURIDICE ACT II
The dance of the furies
Synopsis: The Furies, who guard the entrance to the underworld, dance in front of a ghostly cave on the river Styx, hidden by clouds of smoke.
Gluck paints a great picture of the Furies, the music sounds incredibly modern. Carried by the tremolo of the strings, whipped up by the winds, the choir sings in unisono not melodies but only steps of thirds.
Danse des furies – Minkowski
Synopsis: They have noticed the arrival of Orpheus.
The orchestra begins slowly, increases the tempo until a hellish scene is heard, with yowling and raving that was unknown until now.
Quel est l’audacieux – Froment
Orphees heavenly supplication, a highlight of the work
Synopsis: They do not let Orpheus’ singing not soothe them at first, but Orpheus heartbreaking lamentations soften them and they let him enter the underworld.
Accompanied by harp sounds Orpheus sings his beautiful song. A nice effect are the interjections of the choir (Non). A grandiose musical image of a deeply creative composer.
Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs – Croft
The famous ballett in the Champs Elysées
Synopsis: On the Island of the deceased heroes dance the dance of the blessed spirits.
This ballet pantomime became famous not least because of the part of the solo flute.
Ballet des ombres heureuses
The piece became popular and was arranged for other instruments, here for solo piano, interpreted by Yuja Wang.
Ballet des ombres heureuses for piano – Yuya Wang
Synopsis: Eurydice enjoys the peace and magic of this island.
A nice, quiet conversation between Euridice and the choir.
Cet asile aimable et tranquille – Bender
Synopsis: Orpheus steps onto the island. Enchanted by the purity, he marvels at the beauty of this place. But only Eurydice can give him back his zest for life.
An enraptured interpretation of an enraptured piece, sung by Janet Baker
Che puro ciel (Quel nouveau ciel pare ces lieu) – Baker
Synopsis: The blessed spirits announce that he will meet Euridice here.
A beautiful choral piece.
Viens dans ce séjour paisible
ORFEO ED EURIDICE ACT III
Synopsis: Orpheus drags Eurydice along without looking at her. Eurydice is happy to be reunited with Orpheus, but is irritated by Orpheus’ reticence that Orpheus neither touches nor looks at her. Orpheus asks her to trust him and accompany him.
Gluck is occasionally accused of having composed very straight and straightforward music, his score is always very “tidy”. This bears the danger that the music can become uninspired at certain points if it is not well interpreted. We hear this passage formidably sung by Barbara Hendricks and Sophie von Otter, who convincingly convey the drama (for all its classicism) of this situation. Beautiful ritardandi and accelerandi give life to the music.
Vien, suis un époux qui j’adore – Hendricks / von Otter
The famous aria «che faro senza Euridice»
Synopsis: But Eurydice does not see the point of leaving paradise for a life without Orpheus’ love. She wants to leave Orpheus and Orpheus sees his last chance to look at her. But this is Eurydice’s death sentence and she dies before his eyes. Orpheus laments the loss of his Euridice.
Gluck’s piece for Euridice has become one of the most famous arias ever and the discography includes countless recordings of singers of the most varied vocal ranges. Since Gluck wrote a version for Vienna as well as for Paris, there is a French (“J’ai perdu mon Euridice”) as well as an Italian version (“Che faro senza Euridice”).
Gluck wrote this lament in a major key, although Euridice’s despair at Orfeo’s supposed coldness during the aria is steadily increasing. Hanslick, the famous critic of the 19th century, said that the music of this aria could just as well have been written with the line “J’ai trouvé mon Euridice” instead of “J’ai perdu mon Euridice”.
But Gluck’s choice of key was deliberate. The mourning was to be achieved with the simplicity of the aria and the orchestral accompaniment, only briefly turning to the minor key. Contrary to opera seria conventions, the reformist Gluck wanted to eliminate all artificial ornamentation of the singers and deliberately dispensed with ornamentation. This aspect (see also the interpretations below) led to the discussion whether ornamentation is permitted in this aria.
However, the effect that Gluck made with this aria is grandiose, contemporaries like Rousseau were enthusiastic and the aria became perhaps the first super-hit in opera history.
For many contemporaries Kathleen Ferrier’s expression and warmth of voice was unique. Bruno Walter, a close companion of her short career, wrote after her early death that she was, next to Gustav Mahler, the greatest personal acquaintance of his musical life. Kathleen Ferrier died of breast cancer in 1951 at the age of 41. She had just rehearsed the Orfeo. The interpretation (a live radio recording) is a brilliant document of her voice: soul-stirring warmth, expressive vibrato and ethereal pianissimi.
Che faro senza Euridice – Ferrier
Ferrier was one of Janet Baker’s role model, who shared the voice fach of alto with her. Janet Baker was a world-renowned oratorio and lieder singer, but only sang opera in the British Isles, mainly in Glyndebourne and Scotland. She sang the Orfeo at her farewell performance in 1982 and once again caused a sensation with her soulful interpretation.
Che faro senza Eurydice – Baker
Synopsis: Now he does not want to live anymore and wants to unite with her in the underworld. There Cupid confronts him. He tells him, that his death is not necessary and that he has proven himself worthy of her. He awakens Eurydice and the two of them face each other overwhelmed.
Trios are a rare species in this music, here one with an crescendo over 3 minutes,
Tendre amour – Hendricks / von Otter
Synopsis: While Cupid floats to the sky everyone sings the hymn to the angel of love.
Le dieu de Paphos et de Gnide
ARCHIV, Richard Croft, Mireille Delunsch, Marion Harousseau under the direction of Marc Minkowski and les musiciens du Louvre
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on ORFEO ED EURIDICE by Christoph Wilibald Gluck