Orfeo ed Euridice | Christoph Willibald Gluck
(Orfeo ed Euridice) Director: Mark Morris, USA, 2009, Italian version / Czech and English subtitles, 91 min
The myth of the musician Orpheus, who travels to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, probes the deepest questions of desire, grief, and the power (and limits) of art. The story is the subject of opera’s oldest surviving score (Jacopo Peri’s Euridice, 1600) and of the oldest opera still being performed (Monteverdi’s Orfeo, 1607). Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, turned to this legend as the basis for a work that they hoped would be not just an evening’s entertainment but an operatic ideal. Disillusioned with the inflexible forms of opera as they existed at the time, Gluck sought to reform the operatic stage with a visionary and seamless union of music, poetry, and dance. Specifically, he wanted the singers to serve the drama, and not the reverse. There is no denying that Orfeo ed Euridice, with its score of transcendent and irresistible beauty, helped expand the public’s idea of opera’s theatrical potential. Mozart and Wagner were among the successors to Gluck who openly acknowledged their debt to his vision.
Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) was born in Bavaria and studied music in Milan. He joined an orchestra and learned about the art of opera production in that city, where his first operas were produced. Gluck traveled extensively throughout Europe, attracting students and disciples to his philosophy of an all-encompassing operatic-theatrical experience. After notable successes in London, Prague, Dresden, and especially Paris, Gluck had his greatest achievements in Vienna, where he died in 1787. His librettist for Orfeo ed Euridice was the remarkable Italian poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi (1714–1795). Thanks to many years spent in Paris, he had been influenced by French drama and shared Gluck’s zeal for an ideal musical theater. Calzabigi’s preface to the libretto of their subsequent collaboration, Alceste, spelled out the pair’s ideas for operatic reform. In fact, without Calzabigi’s support much of what we think of today as Gluck’s credo would have remained unknown.
The opera is set in an idealized Greek countryside and in the mythological underworld. These settings are more conceptual than geographic, and notions of how they should appear can (and rightly do) change in every era.
Gluck consciously avoided the sheer vocal fireworks that he felt had compromised the drama of opera during the era of the castrati—male singers who had been surgically altered before puberty to preserve their high voices. Castrati dominated opera to such an extent that composers, Gluck felt, were compelled to compromise their own talents in order to display these singers’ technical brilliance. He did not originally dispense with castrati, but the castrato role of Orfeo was given an opportunity to impress through musical and dramatic refinement (a “noble simplicity,” in Calzabigi’s words), rather than vocal pyrotechnics. This is immediately apparent in his two most notable solos, “Che puro ciel” in Act II and “Che farò senza Euridice?” in the third act. Both are heart-rending arias without a single over-the-top moment. “Che puro ciel” has an oboe accompaniment that typifies the elegant economy of the orchestra throughout the score. Even the dance music manages to be thoroughly convincing and subversively disturbing while retaining a notable simplicity.
Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met
Orfeo ed Euridice was presented early in the Met’s history: it was first heard on a single night on tour in Boston in 1885 and then returned for eight performances in the 1891–92 season. It appeared as the curtain-raiser for the Met premiere of Pagliacci on December 11, 1893. Arturo Toscanini was a great admirer of the opera and showcased it on its own, featuring the great American contralto Louise Homer, from 1909 to 1914. George Balanchine created a dance-intensive production in 1936 that was quickly replaced by another in 1938. Risë Stevens starred in a production in 1955 that also featured Hilde Güden and Roberta Peters, and Richard Bonynge conducted a notable production in 1970 with Grace Bumbry as Orfeo; when it was revived two seasons later, Marilyn Horne sang the role. The current production, by Mark Morris, had its debut in May 2007 with James Levine conducting and David Daniels and Maija Kovalevska in the title roles.