Orfeo ed Euridice
Azione teatrale per musica in three acts
(Version Vienna 1762)
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Ranieri de’ Calzabigi
Few works have had such a profound influence on the development of opera as Christoph Willibald Gluck’s »Orfeo ed Euridice«, which premiered in Vienna in 1762. It exemplifies a whole host of contemporary operatic reforms. The traditional »opera seria« was challenged and to a certain extent superseded by Gluck’s »azione teatrale«, which emphasised natural, authentic expression by the characters. The opera tells the story of Orpheus, who charms the gods of the underworld with his song in order to persuade them to bring his beloved Eurydice back to life. The myth of Orpheus has been one of the most popular themes in opera from the genre’s origins right through to the present day. Gluck’s version presented the story in a completely new way, with an unprecedented dramatic realism that allowed audiences to enter deeply into the characters’ emotional worlds.
At the grave of Eurydice, Orpheus mourns the death of his beloved wife, while a group of mourners enacts the funeral rite. In despair, he turns to the gods and demands that they return Eurydice to him. Amor appears as Jupiter’s messenger and reports to Orpheus that he can bring Eurydice back from the underworld, but only if he refrains from looking at his beloved until they have left the world of darkness. Orpheus accepts this condition, although he doubts that Eurydice will understand his behavior.
Before the gate to Hades, the ghastly Furies block Orpheus’ way to the underworld. But he succeeds in placating the hellish figures with his song, so that they allow him to pass to Elysium. When he arrives, Orpheus extols the beauty of Elysium in song, but his thoughts are focused on the search for Eurydice. He finds his loved one and is determined to lead her from the underworld following the instructions of Jupiter and Amor.
Orpheus asks the incredulous Eurydice to follow his instructions without question and to leave the underworld with him. But soon she complains about the lacking affection of her husband and demands that he looks at her. Orpheus refuses to look and tries to resist Eurydice’s complaints. Disappointed that Orpheus is keeping a secret from her, she threatens rather to die than to live with him unloved. At that, Orpheus’ resistance crumbles and Eurydice dies a second time. Unable to fathom the renewed loss of Eurydice, Orpheus decides to end his life. Then Amor appears and calls Eurydice back to life as a reward for Orpheus’ fidelity.