BY KELSEY NICKERSON
Orpheus with his lute made trees, And the mountain tops that freeze, Bow themselves when he did sing: To his music plants and flowers Ever sprung; as sun and showers There had made a lasting spring.
– William Shakespeare, Henry VIII
What brings so many composers to the Orpheus myth? From Gluck to Glass, over 65 operatic versions of this story exist, including what many consider to be the earliest opera for which the complete music survives, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice. However, Gluck’s version has remained one of the most popular since its premiere in 1762. And despite the fact that this opera is now centuries old, it actually started from rebellious origins.
Gluck’s Orfeo & Euridice was the first of the composer’s “reform operas,” which revolutionized 17th century opera by prioritizing the purity of drama over the complicated plots and florid musical style of opera seria. Gluck believed that show-stopping arias and endless amounts of recitative were getting in the way of operatic storytelling. To solve that problem, Gluck decided to write an opera whose sum would be greater than its parts — a cohesive, continually flowing performance that created a dramatic arc and evoked pathos with the audience.
The role of Orfeo in particular has evolved throughout history. Although Gluck first wrote the role for an alto castrato, then a soprano castrato, he remained unsatisfied with his heroic leads for the majority of his career. When the opera premiered in Paris in 1774, Gluck even went so far as to refashion the role into a bravura performance for a haute-contre or high tenor. The opera was given another makeover by the composer Hector Berlioz in 1859, when he transposed the title role specifically for the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. Her voice and stage presence, described as intense and dramatic, was perfect for Orfeo’s mournful demeanor. This is the version that has become part of the standard repertoire, and the starting point for the Dörffel/Berlioz version that we present this season.
Perhaps it is thanks to the mezzo-soprano voice that modern audiences remain transfixed with Orfeo & Euridice. The opera has a beautiful universality that keeps drawing us back. Orfeo’s musically androgynous quality gives the audience the ability to relate with the character, regardless of gender. It is, after all, a deeply human story...Orfeo journeys from the joy of true love to the depths of grief and despair, all before he has set a foot in the Underworld. There are few people who cannot relate to the experience of losing a loved one, facing a seemingly insurmountable hardship, or questioning their place in the world. Orfeo’s journey is the metaphorical embodiment of human perseverance. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The cyclical nature of the opera’s voyage — traversing from light to the darkest of darkness before emerging back into the light — speaks to the very core of life’s journey.
Orfeo & Euridice also remains beloved because of the testament it makes to the power of music and art. In the myth, and before the beginning of the opera, the god Apollo gives Orfeo a lyre because the gods admire his musical talents so much. Although Orfeo’s music brings joy to the world, perhaps more importantly, Orfeo’s music also allows him to mourn — and eventually conquer — Euridice’s death.
Throughout the opera, it is Orfeo’s honest, heartfelt music that appeases every supernatural soul, from the gods in the heavens to the Furies in the Underworld. It is through his pain that he creates beautiful, moving art, reminding us that even as mortals, we can find beauty in the darkest circumstances. There isn’t a soul, no matter how pure or wicked, that cannot be moved through the power of human expression. Music alone grants Orfeo the power to descend into the Underworld, and even when he defies the gods, it is thanks to music that he is once again able to sway Amore and save Euridice.
The triumphant finale celebrates the balance of life: light and darkness, male and female, sorrow and grace. No matter who we are, or where we come from, music can bring us together to teach us a beautiful thing: joy can be found against all odds.
Image: Eurydice is taken away from Orpheus in this decoration for the Vienna Opera House. Eduard von Engerth (1818–1897)