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Christoph Willibald Gluck, in the Apotheosis of Homer

Orfeo ed Euridice (also known as Orpheus und Euridyka) is an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck. The libretto was written by Ranieri de'Calzabigi. It was first performed in Vienna on October 5, 1762.

The opera is the first by Gluck showing signs of his ambition to reform opera seria. Self-contained numbers (aria, choruses and so on) make way for shorter pieces strung together to make larger structural units. Da capo arias are notable by their absence; Gluck instead uses strophic form (in act one's Chiamo il mio ben così, for example, in which each verse is interposed with dramatic recitatives) and rondo form (in act three's famous Che farò senza Euridice?), and simple recitatives accompanied only by the basso continuo are also absent. On the whole, old operatic conventions are disregarded in favour of giving the action dramatic impetus.

For a 1774 Paris production of the work, Gluck expanded and rewrote parts of the opera, creating a new version, Orphée et Eurydice (libretto translated into French and expanded by Pierre-Louis Moline). He also changed the role of Orpheus from a part for a castrato to one for high tenor (the French never used castrati). In the 19th century, Hector Berlioz made a version of the opera which combined the two versions - in his day, Orpheus was generally sung by a female alto or a tenor.

Orfeo ed Euridice is part of the standard operatic repertoire. There are a number of recordings of it, and it is regularly performed. In recent years recordings and stage productions of the Vienna version of the opera have featured countertenors in the Orpheus role. Countertenors Derek Lee Ragin, Jochen Kowalski, René Jacobs and Michael Chance have featured in recordings of Gluck's Vienna version of Orfeo ed Euridice.

Among other operas based on the story of Orpheus and Euridice are Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo, Jacques Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, Joseph Haydn's L'anima del filosofo, and Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus. Georg Philipp Telemann also wrote an Orpheus opera <find information>

Synopsis

Act I

A chorus of nymphs and shepherds accompany Orfeo around Euridice's tomb in a solemn chorus of mourning. Orfeo is only able to utter Euridice's name. Orfeo sends the others away and sings of his grief in the aria Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the three verses of which are interrupted by expressive recitatives. Amore (Cupid) appears telling Orfeo that he may go to the Underworld and return with his wife on the condition that he not look at her until they are back on earth. Orfeo resolves to take on the quest (in the 1774 version, both Amore and Orfeo have extra songs).

Act II

In a rocky landscape, the Furies refuse to admit Orfeo to the Underworld, and sing of Cerberus, canine guardian of the Underworld. When Orfeo, accompanied by his lyre (represented in the opera by a harp), begs for pity in the aria Deh placatevi con me, he is at first interrupted by cries of "No!" from the Furies, but they are eventually softened by the sweetness of his singing and let him in. In the 1774 version, the scene ends with the Dance of the Furies.

The new scene opens in Elysium. The 1774 version includes here the much-excerpted Dance of the Blessed Spirits (Reigen der seligen Geister) in which a chorus sings of their happiness in eternal bliss. Orfeo finds no solace in the beauty of the surroundings, for Euridice is not yet with him. He implores the spirits to bring her to him, which they do.

Act III

On the way out of Hades, Euridice is delighted to be returning to earth, but Orfeo, remembering the condition related by Amore in Act I, lets go of her hand and refuses to look at her. Euridice takes this to be a sign that he no longer loves her, and refuses to continue, concluding that death would be preferable. Unable to take any more, Orfeo turns and looks and Euridice; she dies. Orfeo sings of his grief in the famous aria Che farò senza Euridice?

Orfeo decides he will kill himself to join Euridice in Hades, but Amore returns to stop him. In reward for Orfeo's continued love, Amore returns Euridice to life, and she and Orfeo are reunited. All sing in praise of Amore (in the 1774 version, this finale is greatly expanded, including a ballet).

R.A. Streatfeild: The Opera , A Sketch of the Development of Opera. With full Descriptions of all Works in the Modern Repertory

But in 1762 came 'Orfeo ed Euridice,' a work which placed Gluck at the head of all living operatic composers, and laid the foundation of the modern school of opera.

The libretto of 'Orfeo' was by Calzabigi, a prominent man of letters, but it seems probable that Gluck's own share in it was not a small one. The careful study which he had given to the proper conditions of opera was not likely to exclude so important a question as that of the construction and diction of the libretto, and the poem of 'Orfeo' shows so marked an inclination to break away from the conventionality and sham sentiment of the time that we can confidently attribute much of its originality to the influence of the composer himself. The opening scene shows the tomb of Eurydice erected in a grassy valley. Orpheus stands beside it plunged in the deepest grief, while a troop of shepherds and maidens bring flowers to adorn it. His despairing cry of 'Eurydice' breaks passionately upon their mournful chorus, and the whole scene, though drawn in simple lines, is instinct with genuine pathos. When the rustic mourners have laid their gifts upon the tomb and departed, Orpheus calls upon the shade of his lost wife in an air of exquisite beauty, broken by expressive recitative. He declares his resolution of following her to the underworld, when Eros enters and tells him of the condition which the gods impose on him if he should attempt to rescue Eurydice from the shades. Left to himself, Orpheus discusses the question of the rescue in a recitative of great intrinsic power, which shows at a glance how far Gluck had already distanced his predecessors in variety and dramatic strength. The second act takes place in the underworld. The chorus of Furies is both picturesque and effective, and the barking of Cerberus which sounds through it is a touch, which though its naïveté may provoke a smile, is characteristic of Gluck's strenuous struggle for realism. Orpheus appears and pleads his cause in accents of touching entreaty. Time after time his pathetic song is broken by a sternly decisive 'No,' but in the end he triumphs, and the Furies grant him passage. The next scene is in the Elysian fields. After an introduction of charming grace, the spirits of the blessed are discovered disporting themselves after their kind. Orpheus appears, lost in wonder at the magical beauty of all around him. Here again is a remarkable instance of Gluck's pictorial power. Simple as are the means he employs, the effect is extraordinary. The murmuring of streams, the singing of birds, and the placid beauty of the landscape are depicted with a touch which, if light, is infallibly sure. Then follows the famous scene in which Orpheus, forbidden to look at the face of his beloved, tries to find her by touch and instinct among the crowd of happy spirits who pass him by. At last she approaches, and he clasps her in his arms, while a chorus of perfect beauty bids him farewell as he leads her in triumph to the world above. The third act shows the two wandering in a cavern on their way to the light of day. Eurydice is grieved that her husband should never look into her eyes, and her faith is growing cold. After a scene in which passionate beauty goes side by side with strange relapses into conventionality, Orpheus gives way to her prayers and reproaches, and turns to embrace her. In a moment she sinks back lifeless, and he pours forth his despair in the immortal strains of 'Che farò senza Euridice.' Eros then appears, and tells him that the gods have had pity upon his sorrow. He transports him to the Temple of Love, where Eurydice, restored to life, is awaiting him, and the opera ends with conventional rejoicings.

Beautiful as 'Orfeo' is—and the best proof of its enduring beauty is that, after nearly a hundred and fifty years of change and development, it has lost none of its power to charm—we must not be blind to the fact that it is a strange combination of strength and weakness. Strickly speaking, Gluck was by no means a first-rate musician, and in 1762 he had not mastered his new gospel of sincerity and truth so fully as to disguise the poverty of his technical equipment. Much of the orchestral part of the work is weak and thin. Berlioz even went so far as to describe the overture as une niaiserie incroyable, and the vocal part sometimes shows the influence of the empty formulas from which Gluck was trying to escape. Throughout the opera there are unmistakable traces of Rameau's influence, indeed it is plain that Gluck frankly took Rameau's 'Castor et Pollux' as his model when he sat down to compose 'Orfeo.' The plot of the earlier work, the rescue of Pollux by Castor from the infernal regions, has of course much in common with that of 'Orfeo' and it is obvious that Gluck took many hints from Rameau's musical treatment of the various scenes which the two works have in common.

In spite, however, of occasional weaknesses, 'Orfeo' is a work of consummate loveliness. Compared to the tortured complexity of our modern operas, it stands in its dignified simplicity like the Parthenon beside the bewildering beauty of a Gothic cathedral; and its truth and grandeur are perhaps the more conspicuous because allied to one of those classic stories which even in Gluck's time had become almost synonymous with emptiness and formality.


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