Major Operas | Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald von Gluck | Classical Era

Orpheus and Eurydice

When the Emperor Franz I and his retinue attended the premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 5 October 1762, they were doubtless expecting a lightweight pastoral entertainment. The occasion – the emperor’s name day – and the opera’s billing as an azione teatrale (literally ‘theatrical action’) promised as much.

What they got was a work of startling originality that integrated chorus, soloists and ballet in dramatic complexes, abandoned the strict da capo aria, and broke down the clear-cut division between recitative and aria.

Calzabigi, the librettist, was a disciple of the French Enlightenment, and a passionate opponent of the artifices and excesses of Italian opera. He took the archetypal story of Orpheus’s descent to Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice and pared it down to essentials. And from the solemn opening chorus of mourning, through the elementally moving contrast between Stygian darkness and dazzling light in Act II, to Orpheus’s famous climactic lament, ‘Che farò’ (‘What shall I do without Eurydice?’), Gluck’s music makes its effects with swift, shattering economy. In 1774, he revised the opera as Orphée et Euridice, adding new arias and ballet numbers for dance-mad Paris, but diffusing the dramatic force of the original. In Vienna the hero had been sung by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni. The French deemed castrati an offence against nature, and Gluck duly reworked the role for the celebrated haute-contre (high tenor) Joseph Legros.

Composed: 1762; revised 1774
Premiered: 1762, Vienna (revised version 1774, Paris)
Libretto by Raniero de’ Calzabigi (revised version Pierre-Louis Moline)

Act I

Orpheus mourns the death of his beloved wife Eurydice, who suffered a deadly snakebite. As he pleads with the gods either to bring her back to life or let him die so that he can be with her, Cupid descends from the heavens. He brings news that the gods have been moved by Orpheus’s pleas and have agreed that he can descend to the underworld to try to retrieve Eurydice. To succeed, he must placate first the Furies and then Pluto with the power of his music. There is also one condition that he must observe: he must not look back towards Eurydice as she follows him out of the underworld, and he may not explain his reasons. Realizing that this may make Eurydice doubt his love and doom his quest to failure, Orpheus puts his trust into Cupid and the power of his love for Eurydice.

Act II

At the entrance to the underworld, Orpheus encounters the terrifying Furies. He pleads with them to be allowed entry but is repeatedly rebuffed as they try to frighten him into returning to the land of the living. Eventually, he charms them with his beautiful singing and they let him pass. Guided by his love for Eurydice, he reaches the Elysian Fields and finds her among other blessed spirits. The lovers are reunited.


Orpheus tries to persuade Eurydice to...

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