Gluck, Orfeo ed Euridice, 1752

Friday August 25th &

September 1st

Reforming opera seria

Gluck’s attempt to make new things happen in what he considered to be the increasingly stuck-in- the-mud world of eighteenth-century French opera – or azione teatrale (‘theatrical action’), as he would have known it. How was it stuck in the mud? Well, it was over-mannered and it was over-reliant on techniques that meant that works with the loosest of plots were being allowed to pass for operas. Gluck’s idea, which was developed by composers such as Puccini years later, was to make opera much more real. (ClassicFM) Gluck wrote 47 operas, many on Greek mythology. Verdi only wrote 27. From an article on the opera by John Eliot Gardiner: The Orpheus myth is among the most ancient in western literature. In essence, it celebrates the power of art – specifically music – to vanquish death and remove its sting. Since the very origins of opera, it has also been a way of heralding rebirth…. See also Gluck’s attempts to remake opera seria predated Mozart’s, and were influenced by Algarotti who argued
for drama, rather than ballet and staging. The drama itself should "delight the eyes and ears, to rouse up and to affect the hearts of an audience, without the risk of sinning against reason or common sense”. Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) is the first of Gluck’s “reform” operas -  in which “he attempted to replace the abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria with a "noble simplicity" in both the music and the drama.”  Simpler storyline, and more complex music, the orchestra  telling it more dramatically. In Orpheus’ aria, "Che puro ciel": “the voice is reduced to the comparatively minor role of recitative-style declamation, while the oboe carries the main melody, supported by solos from the flute, cello, bassoon, and horn. There is also accompaniment from the strings (playing in triplets) and the continuo in the most complex orchestration that Gluck ever wrote.” Read more about Gluck’s innovations and their later influence in Wikipedia. Here’s Janet Baker as Orpheus singing "Che puro ciel" in her farewell to the opera stage. Compare with countertenor David Daniels here. And the aria we all know - J'ai perdu mon Eurydice – sung here by tenor Juan Diego Florez as Orpheus at ROH.

Why Orpheus?

He’s the ultimate demi-god, who could win the other gods through the beauty of his music. And the story - of rescue imperilled by the requirement that emotions are concealed – goes beyond Greek mythology (think Magic Flute, Fidelio, Rheingold.) And Gluck took the myth seriously – watch the dance of the Furies at ROH .

Our Production (French version,

Orphée et Eurydice)

Magdalena Kozená (Orphée), Madeline Bender (Eurydice) & Patricia Petibon (L'Amour). Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2000. Monteverdi Choir & Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor) & Brian Large (director). Stage production by Robert Wilson. English subtitles. Review and discussion.