More Great Operas
More Great Operas
ORFEO ED EURIDICE, ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE: BACKGROUND
Until the revival of baroque opera after World War II, Gluck was the earliest composer to hold a place in the operatic repertoire. His Orfeo was regarded as 'the great-great-grandfather of operas'.
At that time, radio listeners became familiar with its individual 'best tunes', particularly Che far'ó senza Euridice? 1 recorded by so many of the great, notably Kathleen Ferrier; and later, Maria Callas and Janet Baker.
This Italian aria dates back to Gluck's original Orfeo ed Euridice which was premièred in the Court theatre in Vienna on 5 October, 1762. This was a moment in musical history three and a half years after Handel died: and it took place just a few days before the six year-old Mozart jumped on the broad lap of Empress Maria Theresa, navigated her ample bosom and gave her a juicy kiss.
Orphée et Eurydice , in French, which Gluck adapted and extended for his production in Paris almost twelve years later, included today's favourites such as his Dance of the Blessed Spirits and Eurydice's Cet asile aimable et tranquille. 2 The elaborately ornamented Amour, viens rendre à mon âme , which concludes act 1, derives from an edition prepared nearly a hundred years later by Berlioz, the French composer. Of all the versions of the opera, it is the 'Berlioz' one which is generally heard today.
Meanwhile, Orfeo had been performed around Europe. In London, in 1770, it was extended with music provided by J. C. Bach, the 'English Bach', the son of J. S. Bach.
The original Orfeo ed Euridice , which is notable for its simplicity but particularly for its briefness - hence the Bach additions - provides a musical milestone between the elaborate Italian operas recently exemplified by the followers of Handel, and the operas of Mozart: between, say, Giulio Cesare and Don Giovanni .
Gluck himself had previously composed operas in the lengthy, 3 ornate, baroque style with which he was familiar from his time spent in London in the mid-1740s. Those operas were designed to show off the celebrity singer's voice. Continuity was broken because the opening section of an aria had to be repeated and ornamented; the strutting peacock (or hen) could then exit to thunderous applause while the chorus stood on the sidelines looking like two rows of organ pipes. This stilted style had reached its sell-by date. It had become absurd.
With the reform of opera in mind, the influential nobleman in charge of the Viennese theatres brought together Gluck with Raniero Calzabigi, a remarkable librettist. Together, librettist and composer declared that they wanted the 'greatest effort to be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity'.
The librettist Raniero Calzabigi (1714-1795)
The colourful life of Calzabigi was first centred on Naples. He was involved in a poisoning, so he decamped to Paris. There, he ran a lottery in partnership with Casanova, who described him as 'a great opportunist, well versed in financial operations, familiar with the commerce of all nations, learned in history, a wit, a poet and a great lover of women'. Possibly because he was implicated in a fraud, he moved on to Vienna.
But the subject matter of Orfeo , which Calzabigi based on the poems of Virgil, the classical Roman poet, was still mythological. It was desirably so not least because the authorities regarded classical Graeco-Roman subject matter as sufficiently distant and unreal that it would not be subversive. It took Mozart to humanise opera, as we know so well from The Marriage of Figaro . His characters were real, even subversively so.
Gluck own adaptation, Orphée et Eurydice adjusted for the Paris 'market', 4 and to a text by Moline, 5 was staged very successfully in August