Music with Ease > Opera Before 1800 > Orpheus & Eurydice - Gluck
Orpheus and Eurydice
(Italian title: Orfeo ed Euridice)
An Opera by C W Gluck
Opera in three acts. Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck; book by Raniero di Calzabigi. Productions and revivals. Vienna, October 5, 1762; Paris, as "Orphée et Eurydice," 1774; London, Covent Garden, June 26, 1860; New York, Metropolitan Opera House, 1885 (in German); Academy of Music, American Opera Company, in English, under Theodore Thomas, January 8, 1886, with Helene Hastreiter, Emma Juch, and Minnie Dilthey; Metropolitan Opera House, 1910 (with Homer, Gadski, and Alma Gluck).
AMOR, God of Love
A HAPPY SHADE
Shepherds and Shepherdesses, Furies and Demons, Heroes and Heroines in Hades
Place: Greece and the Nether Regions.
Following a brief and solemn prelude, the curtain rises on Act I, showing a grotto with the tomb of Eurydice. The beautiful bride of Orpheus has died. Her husband and friends are mourning at her tomb. During an affecting aria and chorus ("Thou whom I loved") funeral honours are paid to the dead bride. A second orchestra, behind the scenes, echoes, with charming effect, the distracted husbands evocations to his bride and the mournful measures of the chorus, until, in answer to the piercing cries of Orpheus and the exclamatory recitative, "Gods, cruel gods," Amor appears. He tell the bereaved husband that Zeus has taken pity on him. He shall have permission to go down into Hades and endeavour to propitiate Pluto and his minions solely through the power of his music. But, should he rescue Eurydice, he must on no account look back at her until he has crossed the Styx.
Upon that condition, so difficult to fulfil, because of the love of Orpheus to his bride, turns the whole story. for should he, in answer to her pleading, look back, or explain to her why he cannot do so, she will immediately die. But Orpheus, confident in his power of song and in his ability to stand the test imposed by Zeus and bring his beloved Eurydice back to earth, receives the message with great joy.
"Fulfil with joy the will of the gods," sings Amor, and Orpheus, having implored the aid of the deities, departs for the Nether World.
Act I. Entrance to Hades. When Orpheus appears, he is greeted with threats by the Furies. The scene, beginning with the chorus, "Who is this mortal?" is still considered a masterpiece of dramatic music. The Furies call upon Cerberus, the triple-headed dog monster that guards the entrance to the Nether World, to tear in pieces the mortal who so daringly approaches. The bark of the monster is reproduced in the score. This effect, however, while interesting, is but a minor incident. What lifts the scene to its thrilling climax is the infuriated "No!" which is hurled at Orpheus by the dwellers at the entrance to Hades, when, having recourse to song, he tells of his love for Eurydice and his grief over her death and begs to be allowed to seek her. He voices his plea in the air, "A thousand griefs, threatening shades." The sweetness of his music wins the sympathy of the Furies. They allow him to entr the Valley of the Blest, a beautiful spot where the good spirits in Hades find rest. (Song for Eurydice and her companions, "In this tranquil and lovely abode of the blest.") Orpheus comes seeking Eurydice. His recitative, "What pure light!" is answered by a chorus of happy shades, "Sweet singer, you are welcome." To him they bring the lovely Eurydice. Orpheus, beside himself with joy, but remembering the warning of Amor, takes his bride by the hand and, with averted gaze, leads her from the vale.
She cannot understand his action. He seeks to soothe her injured feelings. (Duet: "On my faith relying.") But his effort are vain; nor can he offer her any explanation, for he has also been forbidden to make known to her the reason for his apparent indifference.
Act III. A wood. Orpheus still under the prohibition imposed by the gods, has released the hand of his bride and is hurrying on in advance of her urging her to follow. She, still not comprehending why he does not even cast a glance upon her, protests that without his love she prefers to die.
Orpheus, no longer able to resist the appeal of his beloved bride, forgets the warning of Amor. He turns and passionately clasps Eurydice in his arms. Immediately she dies.
It is then that Orpheus intones the lament, "Che faro senza Euridice" ( I have lost my Eurydice), that air in the score which has truly become immortal and by which Gluck, when the opera as a whole shall have disappeared from the stage, will still be remembered.
"All forms of language have been exhausted to praise the stupor of grief, the passion, the despair expressed in this sublime number," says a writer in the Clément and Larousse Dictionnaire des Opéras. It is equaled only by the lines of Virgil:
Vox ipsa et frigida lingua,
"Ah! miseram Eurydicen," anima fugiente, vocabat;
"Eurydicen," toto referabant flumine ripae.
Or as Dryden translated these lines of Virgil:
Een then his trembling tongue invokd his bride;
With his last voice, "Eurydice," he cried,
"Eurydice," the rocks and river banks replied.
In fact it is so beautiful that Amor, affected by the grief of Orpheus, appears to him, touches Eurydice and restores her to life and to her husbands arms.
The legend of "Orpheus and Eurydice" as related in Virgils Georgics, from which are the lines just quoted is one of the classics of antiquity. In "Orfeo ed Euridice" Gluck has preserved the chaste classicism of the original. Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He played so divinely that trees uprooted themselves and rocks were loosened from their fastnesses in order to follow him. His bride, Eurydice, was the daughter of a Thracian shepherd.
The role of Orpheus was written for the celebrated male contralto Guadagni. For the Paris production the composer added three bars to the most famous number of the score, the "Che faro senza Euridice," illustrated above. These presumably were the three last bars, the concluding phrases of the peroration of the immortal air. He also was obliged to transpose the part of Orpheus for the tenor Legros, for whom he introduced a vocal number not only entirely out of keeping with the role, but not even of his own composition -- a bravura aria from "Tancred," an opera by the obscure Italian composer Fernandino Bertoni. It is believed that the tenor importuned Gluck for something that would show off his voice, whereupon the composer handed him the Bertoni air. Legros introduced it at the end of the first act, where to this day it remains in the printed score.
When the tenor Nourrit sang the role many years later, he substituted the far more appropriate aria, "O transport, ô désordre extrême" (O transport, O ecstasy extreme) from Glucks own "Echo and Narcissus."
But that the opera, as it came from Glucks pen, required nothing more, appeared in the notable revival at the Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, November, 1859, under Berliozs direction, when that distinguished composer restored the role of Orpheus to its original form and for a hundred and fifty nights the celebrated contralto, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, sang it to enthusiastic houses.
The best production of the work in this country was that of the American Opera Company. It was suited, as no other opera was, to the exact capacity of that ill-starred organization. The representation was in four acts instead of three, the second act being divided into two, a division to which it easily lends itself.
The opera has been the object of unstinted praise. Of the second act the same French authority quoted above says that from the first note to the last, it is "a complete masterpiece and one of the most astonishing productions of the human mind. The chorus of demons, What mortal dares, in turn questions, becomes wrathful, bursts into a turmoil of threats, gradually becomes tranquil and is hushed, as if subdued and conquered by the music of Orpheuss lyre. What is more moving than the phrase Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs? (A thousand griefs, threatening shades.) Seeing a large audience captivated by this mythological subject; an audience mixed, frivolous and unthinking, transported and swayed by this scene, one recognizes the real power of music. The composer conquered his hearers as his Orpheus succeeded in subduing the Furies. Nowhere, in no work, is the effect more gripping. The scene in the Elysian fields also has its beauties. The air of Eurydice, the chorus of happy shades, have the breath of inalterable calm, peace and serenity."
Gaetano Guadagni, who created the role of Orpheus, was one of the most famous male contralti of the eighteenth century. Handel assigned to him contralto parts in the "Messiah" and "Samson," and it was Gluck himself who procured his engagement at Vienna. The French production of the opera was preceded by an act of homage, which showed the interest of the French in Glucks work. For while it had its first performance in Vienna, the score was first printed in Paris and at the expense of Count Durazzo. The success of the Paris production was so great that Glucks former pupil, Marie Antoinette, granted him a pension of 6,000 francs with an addition of the same sum for every fresh work he should produce on the French stage.
The libretto of Calzabigi was, for its day, charged with a vast amount of human interest, passion, and dramatic intensity. In these particulars it was as novel as Glucks score, and possibly had an influence upon him in the direction of his operatic reforms.