Thursday, January 22, 2009


I don't think I've ever seen Gluck's great opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I'll see it this Saturday when the Met presents it in HD in movie theaters. I'm looking forward to this production: First, to hear Stephanie Blythe, a rich-voiced contralto and a scrupulous musician in the title role. I'm eager to hear how James Levine, whom I've never heard in music pre- Mozart, shapes this score. Mark Marris's staging has won critical handstands. His interpretation of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" sprang entirely from the music. I suspect his staging of Orfeo will do the same.

Here are some notes I was asked to write for local audiences:

Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto by Raniero da Calzabigi
First performance: Burgtheater, Vienna, October 5, 1762

The myth of Orpheus, the great singer whose love for his wife sends him to Hades in search of her, to whom the gods promise Euridice's return on the condition he never look at her until safely back in the mortal world, was the subject of the first opera we know about, Jacopo Peri's "Euridice" (1599). Monteverdi's great "La favola d'Orfeo" is the oldest opera you are likely to encounter today, and Gluck's version of the same tale 150 years later is one of the oldest operas still performed.

The original, from 1762, was written for castrato. The opera was revised by Gluck several times, most notably in 1774 for Paris, where the local disdain for castrati led Gluck to re compose the title role for haute-contre, the high French tenor. Hector Berlioz revised Gluck's score for mezzo -soprano Pauline Viardot Garcia in 1859. There exist many performing editions of Orfeo ed Euridice, in French, Italian and German. What is never lost is Gluck's simple, deeply moving music and a story of love and loss that resonates today.

Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) is called the reformer of opera. His famous
"Introduction to Alceste" (which may have been written by Calzabigi) puts forward the need to simplify operatic plots and to rely on melody to tell the story:

"I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situation of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless supply of ornaments...I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity..."

The Metropolitan Opera's current production was planned for Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. Her untimely death in 2006 robbed us of what should have been a sensational performance. The staging is by dancer-choreographer Mark Morris, with costumes destined by Isaac Mizrahi. A perfect blend of old and new! In the title role we hear a young American force of nature, Stephanie Blythe. She recalls Louise Homer (1871-1947), the Pittsburgh born contralto whose twenty performances of Orfeo conducted by Toscanini at the Met between 1910 and 1914 put this great work firmly on the map in America. Mr. Morris and conductor James Levine use Calzabigi's original Italian language text, with Berlioz's adjustment of the vocal line for female contralto. The work is performed in one act without intermission.

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