Orfeo ed Euridice, Opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Christoph Willibald Gluck embarked on a journey to reform the classic Italian opera seria, and the result of his ideological and philosophical musings was Orfeo ed Euridice. The work, which premiered on 5 October 1762 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, stands out to this day with its pure-form narrative, bereft of melodramatic plot twists, as well as with its straight-forward musical profile. Gone are the complicated vocal acrobatics and overly ornate melodies. Gluck had no patience or respect for virtuosity that served no artistic purpose. In telling the famous myth of the Thracian singer Orpheus, Orfeo ed Euridice put down the basics of a whole new approach to opera. Its effects would shine through in the later works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and Richard Wagner, among other composers in the Austro-German musical tradition. Gluck’s genre-defining opera plays at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice this season.
Working with librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, Gluck sought to adapt the story of the mythological singer Orpheus and his death-defying mission to the underworld. In line with the composer’s vision of a clean narrative without overt melodrama, he took certain liberties with the original storyline. Orpheus’ beloved Euridice dies from a snake’s venomous bite. The young man is devastated until Amore (Cupid) appears to him with the good news: If Orpheus manages to fetch Euridice from the underworld and bring her back to earth without ever turning around to look at her, she will live again and the two can be happy. On his journey, the mythical musician encounters the Furies, Cerberus, and Hades himself, but his resolve and his love remain unshaken. On their way out of the land of the dead, the lovers end up in a quarrel, and Orpheus breaks his promise. As Euridice dies a second time before his eyes, the singer is ready to kill himself and join her in the underworld, but Cupid intervenes once more and rewards his true love by resurrecting Euridice and escorting them back to earth.
Orfeo ed Euridice at Gran Teatro La Fenice is equal parts a magical tale and an attempt at breaking opera tradition, and Gluck’s musical and narrative skills allow it to excel at both.