Orphée et Eurydice – bridging modern, classical and antique

Posted on August 30, 2013


Orphée et Eurydice – composed by Christoph Willibald von Gluck, rearranged by Hector Berlioz, libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi

I watched the production performed by Vesselina Kasarova, Rosemary Joshua, Deborah York, the Bavarian State Opera Chorus and the Bavarian State Orchestra conducted by Ivor Bolton

This production bravely takes up the challenge of bringing to life an ancient Greek myth through a classical opera rearranged in a modern context. The production was staged in München in 2003.

Its music was composed by Gluck to fit the libretto written by Calzabigi, both of them advocating the idea of reforming the opera seria genre in the eighteenth century. The new ideal, proclaimed by several music theorists of their time was to simplify the narrative of the storyline, which was often rather tortuous in earlier operas, making it more natural, clear, more pleasing to the intellect and the senses, leading to higher dramatic impact. This coincided with similar tendencies in instrumental music, which became known as the classical style, aiming to have an immediate appeal to a wide audience, along the principles of Enlightenment. The classical opera, in contrast with the Baroque opera seria, dedicated its resources to the expression of emotions through a more expressive musical language. Instead of moral-rhetoric content and edifying conclusions, the characters displayed more profound feelings, complex internal dilemmas and a tendency to development during the process of the dramatic action. Instrumental, vocal music and words are perfectly fit together by Gluck’s mastery of tone painting techniques, to enhance each other’s expressive content.

The opera was premiered in Vienna in October 1762, becoming an instant success. After 12 years Gluck re-worked the opera to fit the taste of the French audience. The original libretto was translated and expanded by Pierre-Louis Moline and dance sequences were added to the original version, such as the “Dance of the Furies” and the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”. The role of Orphée was originally set for a male mezzo-soprano, which was played by a castrato. Castrati were popular in earlier times in aristocratic and Catholic church music mainly in Italy, due to their “angelic” voice. However, in France the use of castrati was less well regarded, and hardly any male opera singer would have been able to provide an artistic performance in such a high register. In addition, the usual concert pitch of orchestras raised several semitones during the 18th and 19th centuries. To be able to present the opera in 1859, Hector Berlioz suggested the role of Orphée to be performed by female mezzo-soprano singers and he re-worked Gluck’s opera for the contemporary French stage. This is the version that Ivor Bolton used in their 2003 München performance.

Sergei Rachmanioff plating Sgambati’s piano arrangement of an excerpt from the Dance of the Blessed Spirits

The plot is built around the myth of Orpheus, the artist archetype of Greek mythology, who descends to the underworld to retrieve his wife from death, i.e. from the land of Hades (god of the Underworld).

Act 1 – After the overture a chorus of nymphs and shepherds, disciples of Orphée – all dressed in tails to create a solemn atmosphere, some of them carrying musical instruments – share Orphée’s grief over the death of his wife Eurydice, who was fatally bitten by a serpent. Their sad recitative, however, is unable to bring any consolation to Orphée, whose pain is beyond the reach of words. His aria is built on a few poetical words of grief, asking the gods to reunite him with Eurydice either in life or in death, and it is the music and the expressive ability of the lead character that carries the emotional content forward. When the nymphs and shepherds left the stage, leaving their instruments as a form of sacrifice, Amore appears, offering a chance to Orphée to take a journey to the underworld, trying to soften the hearts of the gods with his music and redeem Eurydice’s life. However, there is one condition to this favour – Orphée cannot look at Eurydice (thus, not express his emotions) until they arrive back to the surface of the Earth. Determined to accept any condition, however cruel it may be, Orphée sets to descend into the depths.

Act 2 – we find Orphée at the entrance of Hades’ emporium, guarded by the Furies – dressed as butchers in the 2003 version – hearing Orphée, heartbreakingly begging for their compassion and access to the land of death.  After they first refuse his request, ultimately the power of music is proven to be stronger than resistance put up by the Furies. Orphée is allowed to Elysium, the home of eternal harmony, of the immortals and mortals favoured by the gods for their heroism, honesty, purity or goodness. The scene is made complete by the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits”, where the habitants of Elysium – dressed in togas and wearing laurel wreaths – welcome Orphée with their dance.

Act 3 – Orphée is reunited with Eurydice in the realm of death, where the first moments of happiness soon turn into bitterness, when Eurydice confronts the apparent indifference of Orphée. The duet between the couple is saturated with emotion, tension, the pain and conflict of mutual, but unfulfilled love. Finally, Orphée breaks his pledge of emotional restraint in the dramatic high point of the opera. In the original version written by Gluck their love is finally rewarded by the mercy of the gods, a happy ending communicated by the returning Amore. However, in subsequent versions a dance scene is included, retelling the story with a different, tragic ending, where Orphée meets a violent death after breaking the pledge. This scene features elements of the myth about Orphée’s death, which attributes it to women of Dionysus’ tribe, enraged by Orphée rejecting to honour the cult of Dionysus.

The 2003 Munchen performance is a great example of a production bringing together cultural material overarching many centuries – a Greek myth, a classical opera, modern staging and choreography. The central elements of the myth are preserved intact, however, its intellectual appeal is expanded by the inclusion of the final ballet piece, blending tragic and comical elements in an almost burlesque like fashion, resembling early twentieth century silent movies, which features a tragic ending, as opposed to the happy ending of Gluck’s original version (which may seem somewhat naïve, I suppose). This version allows a less simplistic interpretation of the original myth, such as the one put forward by Plato in his work Symposium, in which the god’s only presented an apparition of Eurydice to Orpheus (Orphee), and the only way he could be really re-unite by his beloved wife was by his own death. This is a beautiful mythological equivalent of the psychology of the grieving process after the loss of a close person. Finding it difficult to accept the cruel reality of their loss, the ones left behind naturally have phantasies and dreams about the revival of the lost person, which inevitably turns out to be nothing but a painful illusion. Thus the opera becomes a convincing representation of a psychological process in its real-life complexity. For me, this comes through splendidly in the Munich version. The simple, modern staging, contemporary “dress code” (except some of the dances) is in line with the aim of classicism and the Enlightenment to appeal to a wide audience, without distracting attention from the central dramatic content. Also, it carries the message of the timeless, universal character of the drama.


I have found a copy of the Munich performance on YouTube, which may give you an idea of the show, although the original DVD version is much more enjoyable.


Tibor Kovacs, Open College of Arts student

Posted in: Part 4