Orfeo ed Euridice (French version: Orphée et Eurydice; English translation:Orpheus and Eurydice) is an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck, with libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi, and is one of the most significant works in operatic history. It was first performed in Vienna at the Burgtheater on October 5, 1762, for the name day celebrations of the Emperor Francis I. The production was supervised by the reformist theatre intendant, Count Giacomo Durazzo, choreography was by Gasparo Angiolini and set designs by Giovanni Maria Quaglio, all leading members of their fields. The first Orfeo was the famous castrato Gaetano Guadagni.
The opera is the first by Gluck showing signs of his ambition to reform opera seria. Self-contained numbers (aria, choruses and so on) make way for shorter pieces strung together to make larger structural units. Da capo arias are notable by their absence; Gluck instead uses strophic form (in Act One's Chiamo il mio ben così, for example, in which each verse is interposed with dramatic recitatives) and rondo form (in Act Three's famous Che farò senza Euridice?). Also absent are simple recitatives accompanied only by the basso continuo. On the whole, old Italian operatic conventions are disregarded in favour of giving the action dramatic impetus. The complexity of the storyline is greatly reduced by eliminating subplots. Gluck was influenced by the example of French tragédies en musique, particularly those of Rameau. Like them, the opera contains a large number of expressive dances, extensive use of the chorus and accompanied recitative. The coup de théâtre of opening the drama with a chorus mourning one of the main characters is borrowed from Rameau's Castor et Pollux (1737). Other elements do not follow Gluck's subsequent reforms; for instance, the brisk, cheerful overture does not reflect the action to come.
For the Paris production of the work, which premiered on 2 August, 1774, Gluck expanded and rewrote parts of the opera, creating a new version, Orphée et Eurydice (libretto translated into French and expanded by Pierre-Louis Moline). He also changed the role of Orpheus from a part for a castrato to one for high tenor (the so-called haute-contre- the French never used castrati). This version of the work also had additional ballet sequences, conforming to the tastes that were prevalent at the time in Paris. In 1859, Hector Berlioz made a version of the opera with the singer Pauline Viardot in mind, which combined the two versions - in his day, Orpheus was generally sung by a female alto or a tenor. Berlioz's version also included a number of changes in the orchestration.
Orfeo ed Euridice is part of the standard operatic repertoire, indeed it was the earliest opera still to be regularly performed throughout the nineteenth century, before the Baroque revival of modern times. There have been numerous recordings of the different versions, especially of the Berlioz adaptation featuring a female Orfeo. The British alto Kathleen Ferrier made the role her own. In recent years recordings and stage productions of the Vienna version of the opera have featured countertenors in the Orpheus role. Countertenors Derek Lee Ragin, Jochen Kowalski, René Jacobs and Michael Chance have featured in recordings of Gluck's Vienna version of Orfeo ed Euridice. Recordings of the French version for tenor are relatively rare: there is a famous one from the 1950s starring Léopold Simoneau opposite his wife Pierrette Alarie; and Marc Minkowski recently brought out a period instrument performance with Richard Croft in the title role.
The Italian composer Ferdinando Bertoni set the same libretto in the old style in 1776. Jacques Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld is partly a parody of Gluck's work and includes a quotation from Che farò senza Euridice?.
A chorus of nymphs and shepherds accompany Orfeo around Euridice's tomb in a solemn chorus of mourning. Orfeo is only able to utter Euridice's name. Orfeo sends the others away and sings of his grief in the aria Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the three verses of which are interrupted by expressive recitatives. Amore (Cupid) appears telling Orfeo that he may go to the Underworld and return with his wife on the condition that he not look at her until they are back on earth. Orfeo resolves to take on the quest. (Note: in the 1774 version, both Amore and Orfeo have extra songs. Orfeo ends the act by delivering a bravura aria, L'espoir renaît dans mon âme, in the older, showier Italian style).
In a rocky landscape, the Furies refuse to admit Orfeo to the Underworld, and sing of Cerberus, canine guardian of the Underworld. When Orfeo, accompanied by his lyre (represented in the opera by a harp), begs for pity in the aria Deh placatevi con me, he is at first interrupted by cries of "No!" from the Furies, but they are eventually softened by the sweetness of his singing and let him in. In the 1774 version, the scene ends with the Dance of the Furies.
The new scene opens in Elysium, which Orfeo greets with the beautiful arioso Che puro ciel. Here the 1774 version includes the much-excerpted Dance of the Blessed Spirits in which a chorus sings of their happiness in eternal bliss. Orfeo finds no solace in the beauty of the surroundings, for Euridice is not yet with him. He implores the spirits to bring her to him, which they do.
On the way out of Hades, Euridice is delighted to be returning to earth, but Orfeo, remembering the condition related by Amore in Act I, lets go of her hand and refuses to look at her. Euridice takes this to be a sign that he no longer loves her, and refuses to continue, concluding that death would be preferable. Unable to take any more, Orfeo turns and looks at Euridice; she dies. Orfeo sings of his grief in the famous aria Che farò senza Euridice? (What is life to me without thee).
Orfeo decides he will kill himself to join Euridice in Hades, but Amore returns to stop him. In reward for Orfeo's continued love, Amore returns Euridice to life, and she and Orfeo are reunited. All sing in praise of Amore (in the 1774 version, this finale is greatly expanded, including a ballet).
1762 Vienna version (with counter-tenor Orpheus)
1762 Vienna version (with female Orpheus)
1774 Paris version (with tenor Orpheus)
1859 Berlioz version (in French)
1859 Berlioz version (in Italian)