BY RON DANIELS
Hey, Calzabigi, what’s this ending you’re giving me here? Such a downer, I should send folks home with their faces long like a wurst? HELLO? Happy it up, ja!
– Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
“Let not the date of the first performance of Orfeo, 5th October 1762, be forgotten,” writes Alfred Einstein, the great musicologist (not Albert, the scientist). “It was the name-day of the Emperor Francis I, a day on which it would have been impossible to produce a piece with a tragic ending.”
And so Gluck and Calzabigi, his librettist, set about transforming the age-old tragic myth of Orfeo, forgoing Orfeo’s gruesome death at the hands of the vengeful Circonian women and giving the opera a new and controversial “happy ending” in which love and music triumph.
This triumph, however, comes only through loss, suffering, and pain. For love is an unbearable torment, and it is no wonder that Euridice — wracked by terrible doubts and uncertainties as her husband cruelly keeps his face turned away from her on their return to the living world — wishes to go back to Elysium, where all troubling passions have ceased and even the memories of love have faded away, and where, finally, there is peace and tranquility.
However, by radically altering the ending of the story, Gluck and Calzabigi added a new meaning to the Orfeo myth of enduring love and the transcendental power of music. Euridice’s second return to life borrows its significance from yet another ancient myth, that of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, whose return to the world at the end of every bleak winter announces the arrival of springtime and with it, the promise of the glorious warmth of summer days.
The days of grief and lamentation are over. And if before reaching the above world, Orfeo fails the final test and turns, full of concern, to look on Euridice’s anguished face, his failure is but a triumph that proves his love is greater than his obedience to the gods. Through his love, death itself is vanquished.
Orfeo & Euridice becomes then not only a celebration of the triumph of love, but also a festive ritual during which the earth itself is reborn.
Love, it makes the gods merciful. Works for me. Nice going, Raniero. Sure thing, Willibald.
– The Ground Beneath Her Feet
Image: Orpheus and Eurydice, Jean Raoux (1677–1734). Getty Museum Open Content.