GLUCK'S ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE
Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sundaym 3rd of July 2016 at 6 - 9 pm
Sunday 1st of March 2009 at 3 - 6 pm
Sunday 3rd of June 2007 at 3pm
GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice, an opera in three acts
The Greek legend in which the grief-stricken Orfeo is given permission to retrieve his wife Euridice from Hades
Orphée......................... Juan Diego Floréz (tenor)
Eurydice...................... Lucy Crowe
Amour.......................... Amanda Forsythe
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner, Covent Garden 2015
Euridice......................... Danielle de Niese
Amor............................ Heidi Grant Murphy
Orfeo............................ Stephanie Blythe (alto)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/James Levine
Euridice: Maija Kovalevska
Amor: Heidi Grant Murphy
Orfeo: David Daniels (counter-tenor)
Conductor: James Levine
Juan Diego Florez noted in 2015 that it is all played out in the brain of Orpheus; he is working through his grief (What will I do without her?) and finally he accepts he must live without his beloved Eurydice.
The bliss of the lovers has been abruptly dissipated by Eurydice's death from snakebite. Orpheus laments his loss lovingly and lengthily at the tomb.
Amor (godddess of love) intervenes to report the decision of the gods, who have been moved to pity: he may go down to the underworld and bring her home, provided that he does not look back at her before they have crossed the River Styx, the boundary of Hades. (Is this a test of his constancy and patience, or an indication of how petty and pernicious and pernickety the decrees of the gods could be?)
Orpheus, in a state of determination mingled with trepidation, begins his descent.
At the entrance to the underworld, Orpheus is confronted by a host of furies (including the members of the orchestra in silly one-piece striped suits, in the Catalan version) who refuse admittance to this presumptuous undead mortal; but they are eventually moved by his singing, and they calmly allow him to pass.
Scene 2 opens with the ballet of the Blessed Spirits (a minuet,
including a lovely flute solo). Orpheus is now in paradise, the Elysian
fields (more peaceful than that busy Parisian road with the same name). In the Elysian Fields, the Blessed Spirits welcome him; they will be playing their beautiful dance music, which was cruelly omitted in the only performance I have seen, at Victoria University in 1981, as in the original performance in 1762; this piece would have interrupted the dramatic action (what action? characters walking on the spot).
Orfeo breaks out into song, Che puro ciel, che chiaro sol (What a pure
sky, what a clear sun). [So they have their own sky and sun down there?]
Birds are singing sweetly in harmony, the atmosphere is serene in this
abode of the Heroes (male and female). Nevertheless, unless he can find
his ‘idol’ he will despair. “Her sweet accents, her amorous glances, her
lovely laughter” are his sole Elysium. But where is she to be found?
The chorus tells Orfeo that Amor (Love) will return Euridice to him,
risen from the dead and restored to her former beauty. But Orfeo is
impatient, and tells the spirits that if they were lovers, they would
understand the fiery desire that is tormenting him; without her he can
not be happy even in this placid place. It’s all right, she is coming,
they say, and they tell her not to bewail her fate, because she has another Elysium now, in the person of her faithful spouse.
Anyway, Eurydice is restored to Orpheus.
Act 3. Scene 1 is a lengthy conversation between the reunited couple
(he is permitted to speak to her but not to look at her, in this
version). Orpheus is leading his beloved by the hand, with his eyes continually averted, in accordance with his vow.
Before long she withdraws her hand and demands that he
look at her, and give her the hugs and kisses she expects from him. He
grabs her hand again, and tries to drag her out of the realm of
darkness. Again she pulls her hand away in anger and resentment.
Together, though separately, they sing: Grande, o Numi, è il dono
vostro! “Great , O Gods, is your gift. I know it and am grateful. But
the pain you link with your gift is unbearable to me”. Euridice then
continues with two angry outbursts about her anguish (some of us will
find her a bit unreasonable, but we should remember she does not know
the rules of the game).
Eurydice wants to know what is wrong, as it seems his refusal to look
at her means that he no longer loves her. He protests, but she says she
would rather be dead if she does not have his affection. Orfeo is finally impelled into looking at her,
and with a cry of ‘What’s happening to me?’ she collapses and dies.
Orfeo shakes her but can not revive her, and he reverts to his
inconsolable state. Orpheus has yielded to her pleas, and we are back where we started.
He sings a song (in two verses) about his
lonely misery. The first verse begins with the words Che farò senza
Euridice? “What will I do without Eurydice?”. I can hear you are already
humming, whistling or even singing it yourself. Nobody offers him the
Italian consolation line:”You will find another wife in six months”, so there is no occasion for him to give the standard reply, “But what will I do tonight?”.
In the second verse, he is sucidal and in ‘Goodbye cruel world’ mode. “Wait, dear shade of my idol. This time you will not pass over the slow waves of Lethe without your spouse”.
He tries to kill himself (and in the original cautionary tale
he is torn to pieces by Thracian women in a drunken orgy; his head goes
floating down the river and is calling out her name in despair; when it
reaches Lesbos it is given burial).
Amor/Love suddenly intevenes: Orfeo, che fai? “Orpheus, what in Hell’s
name do you think you are doing?”. The gods, as capricious as ever, relent, blaming their variability on the extremely sorrowful singing they are subjected to.
Amor delivers the message of reprieve, and the lovers are re-reunited. For his constancy, Orfeo will have
Euridice restored to him by Amor. She rises up, as if awakening from a
deep sleep, and this time Orfeo rushes to embrace her. General
rejoicing, and in the grand finale all exult in the triumph of Love.
One production we have watched in our video-opera group is from the Iberian Peninsula (not Portugal, not the
Basque country, not Spain, but that other region that wants to break
away from the united Spanish kingdom, and be like a cat alone).
It’s a circus, with Orpheus climbing up a pillar with step-holes
(Eurydice’s tombstone?), hanging from a sky-hook (or whatever), and the
happy couple ultimately swinging on a star (very erotic). He never has a
hand free to carry a lyre.
Orfeo: Anita Rachvellishvili Euridice: Maite Alberola
In our video-opera group we have also watched a Covent Garden version,
creatively modernized (almost beyond recognition), with the
counter-tenor Jochen Kowalski. The Dance of the Blessed Spirits is
played (with flute to the fore) but not performed.
the overture, Orpheus and Eurydice come in and sit down as young
lovers, while a mirror set revolves behind them. He has a guitar (not a
lyre), and wears trousers, T-shirt, and leather jacket. She slips away,
and he eventually runs after her, and finds her dead (run over by a
bus?). Dance 1 ensues (but there is no ballet). The choir, in their
dirge mention a funeral urn, and this is brought on and placed on a
pedestal. Orpheus has some relics of Eurydice: her purse, her wig, and a
red high-heeled shoe (Does he have a footwear-fetish? Is he thinking of
drinking wine from it to drown his sorrows?). The really big worry for
us is: Will he smash his guitar in his grief? After fondling the wig and
the purse he puts them in a rubbish container.
his plaintive song a phone booth rolls on (providing a hot line to Hell?
or Heaven?). Eventually he vandalizes it, injuring himself (serves him
Amor (Love) comes on as a little boy with a
ball and a radio cum tape-recorder. Amor is sung by a boy soprano
standing at the side in formal dress with his score open, as if he were
performing in an oratorio. The voice of Amor is supposed to be coming
from the lad’s tape recorder. Amor lays down the rules: Jove will allow
Orpheus to cross the stagnant waters of Lethe, to charm his way past the
furies with his beautiful voice, and to bring his wife back from the
abyss; but he must not look at her or he will lose her again. Orpheus
“plays ball” with the boy and agrees to the terms. He takes his jacket
off, and hurls it to the ground. The libretto calls for lightning and
thunder here. Orpheus is surrounded by men in white coats (representing
the furies) and he is dragged off to the madhouse (Erebus).
version moves straight into Act 2. Orpheus is put in a straitjacket,
but Amor releases him. He dresses up in a bowtie and a coat with tails,
takes up his score and sings, to impress the raging spirits. Then he
puts his normal clothes on. He has a new electric guitar
(significance?). He still carries the red shoe, and retrieves the wig
and the purse from the rubbish.
The picture you have constructed in your mind will bear no resemblance to the staging we will behold (with eyes wide shut, if you wish) in this Covent Garden production.
Discuss. (Or hurl discuses at it.)
Here I want to acknowledge again my debt to The Good Opera Guide (by Denis Forman, 1994) which was presented to me in 2000 by Peter Donovan. Forman's running commentaries are irreverent but not irrelevant. He has a blast against critics who write reviews of opera performances. He cites a revelant case (very revealing): one conductor had "languid tempi" in one critique, and "a brisk and businesslike approach to the score" in another account of the same performance.
Denis despises those critics "who use any opera as a peg upon which to hang an ego trip": "a display of learning", "a biographical bit about how they first saw/heard the opera and how it struck their virgin mind", or "a dissertation on one of their current fads". Of course I am giving my readers a rod with which to beat my own back, in telling you this! But I hope I can ward off your blows with two defences: I am not a critic (reporting how the opera went, or telling you in advance how you should react to it when it happens); and everybody knows that a blog is an outlet for egomania, a diary for getting a person's demons out of their psychic system, but also for sharing one's own experiences with others, who may actually take a sympathetic interest in them. You possibly know by now that I started loving music through Wagner's Parsifal, and Handel's Water Music and Messiah (especially whenever the trumpets sounded in each of them), and I eventually bought a trumpet from a pawnbroker in Sydney. And, a few people are aware that I think Oklahoma is a great opera (I've gone about as fur as I can go, in saying this).
And so to Orfeo and Euridice. Yes, I have memories about this, and I was reviving them when I found myself sitting next to Linden Loader at a concert on Good Friday this year (2007). She was in a Victoria University production in Wellington in 1981, at the start of her career (actually understudy to Patricia Lawrey, another beautiful voice), and I was there. I was captivated by it. I bought recordings of it, twelve-inch boxes with wonderful pictures on the cover, and a big two-foot long book (when you open it out) with words and illustrations. One has Kathleen Ferrier (Amsterdam 1951; EMI 1977), and another features Marilyn Horne; and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a recording (a baritone, not a male alto, and certainly not a castrato, as in the time of Gluck).
In the original version of this love story, Orpheus is given one chance to bring his beloved Eurydice back from Hades, but he is not obedient to the terms of release imposed by the gods, and so he fails (not knowing the rules, she demands a hug, and he gives in to her, and she is whisked back into Hell); the Furies tear him to pieces, and his head floats down the Averno River crying "Eurydice!".
The commentaries will tell us about Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and his part in the "reform" of opera, seeking to reduce the influence of the poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), whose libretti were the standard for Italian opera (opera seria, "serious opera"): six main characters, historical subjects, lofty sentiments, highly stylized set-pieces (arias, duets, ensembles) for the singers to display their virtuosity, and recitative (recitativo secco) accompanied by a harpsichord and a string-bass. In his Orfeo Gluck wrote orchestral accompaniment for the recitative (paving the way for Wagner), and the libretto of Raniero de' Calzabagi (with five arias and one duet) allows an uninterrupted flow to the drama.
In the original production in Vienna (1762) the much-loved "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" did not appear; Gluck composed it for the Paris version (1774). The Wellington performance was attended by John Gordon, an old announcer who had a radio programme on the national network at 4 pm, in which the said dance (virtually a flute rhapsody) appeared regularly; he was disappointed that it was nowhere to be found in the music on that night. The producer was Fiona (Farrell) (Poole), the conductor was Peter Walls, the designer was Julia Morison (a student of mine), and the driving force was the idea of a tight unified drama, with no distractions along the way. In 1770, when Captain James Cook was exploring Australasia, Orpheus and Eurydice was staged with seven additional arias composed by J.C. Bach (the English Bach). So much for "reform opera" and the requirement of not interrupting the action with static ornamentation.
Now, I don't want to hear anybody falsely quoting me as having rejected Metastasio-type Italian operas; they are lovely in their own way. And I myself was annoyed that the Blessed Spirits did not get an airing that night (and I'll bet the flutist in the orchestra was peeved too). Of course, if it had been played, I would have been ejected from the theatre for whistling along with it.
This is what I innocently said in the past, and none of these links is now accessible.
May I say, it is worth your while to click on the headings, to get
good background information on each opera from NYMetropera (that's not
what they call themselves, but I think the additional -r- is helpful).
information they have provided will remain on the Wonderful Wizard's
Web until the Sun swallows up the planet Earth, so we will be able to
get the information by clicking on my blue headings (see above).
Actually, their archive-website does not include www.
If you would like to use it, the address is:
if you start with the homepage you will see Margaret Juntwait (wearing
headphones on her red hair), Renée Fleming, David Daniels, Samuel Ramey
(his smile doesn't wobble), and Stephanie Blythe (Orfeo in the 2009
season), and scenes from operas.
am really writing this down for my own sake, as I will have forgotten
it by next week and beyond, when good old Aunty RNZConcert starts giving
us selected recordings of operas (Bless her heart). The NYMet notes
will still be useful for many of them.