Orfeo ed Euridice
Gluck, a composer esteemed by Berlioz, admired by Wagner, whose name is engraved next to Beethoven’s on many nineteenth-century opera houses, is known today mainly for his opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. It was a revolutionary work, and all the history books tell us that it ushered in a new era in operatic drama.
But it is really the original Italian-language version of the opera, presented in Vienna in 1762, that is revolutionary and powerfully dramatic. Twelve years later, when it was premiered in Paris, the composer thoroughly reworked the opera to suit French tastes, transforming the revolutionary Orfeo into a very conservative French-language Orphèe. In addition to making major changes to the music that he had written earlier, as well as shifting the title role from a male alto to a tenor, Gluck acceded to the French passion for ballet by adding a good deal of new ballet music. The result was an opera which was considerably longer and less dramatic than it had been, although some of the added music has become well-known and loved.
Boston Baroque’s performance is based on the original, more dramatic Vienna version. In it we hear Gluck the reformer, who hoped to resurrect ancient theater and break down national styles: “If my plans succeed, your old-fashioned music will be destroyed forever.” To accomplish this, he sought to dismantle what he saw as the rigid, formalized conventions of opera—the ubiquitous da capo arias, in which a singer predictably repeated the entire opening section of an aria; the regular alternation of arias with secco recitatives; the frequent cadenzas and other virtuoso displays for singers. All these were, to Gluck, impediments to the natural flow of a drama. He proposed to “confine music to its proper function of serving the poetry and expressing the situations of the plot.” “I believed,” he wrote,“that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity.... There is no rule which I have not thought it right to set aside willingly for the sake of an intended effect.”
His remarkable orchestration, which includes harp, English horns, chalumeau, and cornetto, conjures up the music with which Orpheus charmed the king of the underworld. And Orpheus’s final lament at losing Euridice is one of the most famous moments in opera. It is the aria Che farò senza Euridice? (What will I do without Euridice?), in which he expresses his anguish not in agitated music but, even more poignantly, through a simple melody in the gentle key of C major.