Ancient Story, Cutting Edge Opera: Gluck's 'Orphée et Eurydice'

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Do you know which, age old story has inspired everything from a buoyant opera by Haydn to a doleful ballet by Stravinsky, an elegant operetta by Offenbach and a sullen madrigal by William Byrd?

Well, maybe the titles of those works will provide the necessary hints. The Haydn opera is called Orphée et Eurydice. The operetta by Offenbach is Orphée aux enfers. The works by Stravinsky and Byrd both bear the name of the same title character, but in a different language: Orpheus.

Right. The inspiring story in question is the tale of a beguiling singer, Orpheus, who embarks on a dangerous quest to win back lost love, by rescuing his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld.

The myth of Orpheus is among the most ancient in Western literature, and when it comes to opera, the story has been around from the very beginning: It's the subject Monteverdi chose when he wrote what's widely regarded as the first great opera ever composed, Orfeo, which appeared in 1607.

Then, about 150 years after Monteverdi's Orfeo, at a time when opera had fallen into a sort of musical rut, Christoph Willibald Gluck chose the same story to put the genre back on track. He did it with the remarkable score that's featured here, a drama that reinvented opera.

When Gluck's original, Italian version of the Orpheus legend appeared in 1762, in Vienna, the concept of opera wasn't very old by historical standards. Yet, to some ears, it was already going stale. The straightforward, intensely expressive style pioneered by Monteverdi had given way to something called opera seria.

To be sure, there were composers who were masters of opera seria, writing profound works of great beauty. Handel is one example. But there weren't many Handels around, and the form did have its drawbacks. There wasn't much to it but dry, unaccompanied recitatives and florid virtuoso arias. And eventually, the virtuosity of the singers had become opera's main attraction.

So some composers, including Gluck, decided to make a few changes. In his version of the Orpheus story, Gluck uses the orchestra throughout the drama, basically eliminating the breaks in the action caused by opera seria's dry recitatives. He also dispenses with the standard da capo aria -- in which long passages of music are repeated, with increasingly showy ornamentation.

Gluck thought that sort of music detracted from the story. Instead, he aimed at what he called, a "noble simplicity." His arias were shorter and more direct, with the music intended to reinforce the drama, rather than bog it down. The resulting score arguably has more in common with the early musical dramas of Monteverdi's time than with the works of Gluck's contemporaries, and the premiere was among the most significant events in all of 18th-century opera.

Yet even Gluck wasn't immune to the demands of his audiences. Within a dozen years he had come up with a more elaborate, expanded edition of the score -- written in French, to be played in Paris. And there’s another, key difference between Gluck’s two versions of the opera. In the original Italian score, the role of Orpheus is written for an alto castrato. It's the French version that's featured here, in a performance starring one of today's most acclaimed tenors, Juan Diego Flórez, as Orpheus.

On WORLD OF OPERA, host Lisa Simeone presents Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. John Eliot Gardiner is the conductor, with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.

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