Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orphee et Eurydice (1774 version)

Opera in three acts and five tableaux. Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

This opera probably exists in more versions than any other. Along with the three versions Gluck produced (originally for alto castrato, then in one act for a soprano castrato, and later for high tenor as French taste forbade the historical monstrosity of the castrato), Berlioz made up one in four acts for mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (the first Fides) which frankly just confused the heck out of everyone, and in the 20th century everything from mezzos to baritones (but especially contraltos) have performed the main role, and to top it all off conductors have tinkered with retaining one piece and chucking out another probably since the 19th century. The rest of the casting is rather simple: two dime a dozen sopranos and a standard SATB chorus. Although certain sections are common to all versions, basically all recordings of this opera are in some way slightly different and make up their own distinct version. I have chosen the 1774 French version because it has a tenor, frankly I just find the female Orpheus to just be too strange. The recording I actually own has a baritone as Orpheus. This review is fairly close to Sir Denis Forman’s but I do diverge a little.

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PLAYLIST curiously of Kirill:

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA80D48B264A891AE

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Before the tomb of Eurydice. (27 minutes)

0: The overture * is a good concert piece with two solid tunes duking it out. It also has nothing to do with the rest of the opera at all.

3: The opening chorus *** is amazingly effective as garlands are laid upon the tomb of Eurydice.

10: Orpheus’ seven minute long lament *** is somewhat fragmentary at times

17, 19: The arrival of Amour who has good new for Orpheus ** to a fetching and playful tune as he goes over the rules (Orpheus can not look back at Eurydice on the way back or she is lost forever).

23: Orpheus furiously excited aria as he anticipates rescuing Eurydice * brings the act to a close.

ACT 2 (34 minutes)

Scene 1: The gates of Hades.

1: The act begins with an ornery and frankly overall unlikeable rage fest from the orchestra which ends up with the choral accompaniment of the furies with a patch of orchestral music which sounds strongly like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons *.

5: Orpheus comes on pleading to enter and keeps getting denied. In itself it is effective and Orpheus’ work on the Furies is very beautiful **  but Gluck’s furies are probably more scary than the real thing! Eventually the Furies mellow and permit him entry to a comparatively tuneful chorus which sounds about fifty years younger than it actually is.

10: The ballet of the Furies * is furious and I think included in a scene of MGM’s Marie Antoinette, the 1937 film! It isn’t exactly danceable though and I assume that in more than one production it has been used as a scene change intermezzo.

Scene 2: The Elysian Fields.

14: The placid ballet of the Blessed Spirits * (again not so much danceable as a good piece of scene transformation music). After ten and a half solid minutes of orchestral music we get the first bit from Eurydice, and she really isn’t giving us a logical reason for her co-star billing with this. No star, although in its own mild way it is an elegant three minutes.

24: Orpheus’ address to the Elysian Fields is stunning ***.

27: The chorus of the heroes and heroines is very charming ** and warm. Orpheus asks for Eurydice and they mildly call for her. It fades out as the act ends and Orpheus leads Eurydice away without looking at her.

ACT 3:

Scene 1: A rocky place. (28 minutes +17 minutes ballet)

3: The act begins on some agitated strings and husband and wife arguing all the while Orpheus does not look at her. It turns into a rather good duet **.

7: Euridice is angry * and tells her husband so in an arioso.

11: Orpheus looks back and Eurydice dies and Orpheus freaks out *.

14: Now, what you have all been waiting for, Orpheus’ gorgeous lament upon losing Eurydice a second time. This is Gluck’s most famous piece ***. He contemplates suicide, and is about to do so when Amour pops in and brings Eurydice back to life.

24: They celebrate to a bizarrely sedate trio. It does lighten up towards the end * when it appears Gluck has gotten out of his opium delirium and resumed composing music as opposed to muzak.

Scene 2: The Temple of Amour.

26: The last four minutes or so consists of an awkward “triumph of love” ensemble for the three soloists and company. It gets better when the two sopranos have their respective outings *.  The ballet, which is not included here but is on the recording, is okay and has some ideas that will resemble Beethoven in a few decades. One brings back the finale tune.

COMMENTS:

This opera was meant to be an experiment in simplicity and elegance, and without the ballets I think it actually accomplishes this rather well, in spite of the fact that both the overture and especially the finale are a bit corny. Why there is so much filler music, including over ten minutes of the second act which consists of back to back ballet music. There are only three soloists, one of them is more of a deus ex machina than a character, and another only appears half way through the work (although in the 1762 version Eurydice doesn’t sing at all until act 3!).  I prefer a tenor singing the main role, although many a contralto has triumphed as Orpheus. The male voice lends the work more sexual credibility, at least to me. Amour is amusing but only appears for about 15 minutes of the entire opera. So otherwise most of the opera consists of Orpheus, the chorus, and the orchestra, and this is more fun with a tenor, or even a baritone. And yet, this is the first opera where both the music and the drama (even though myth) are actually completely believably human. Although the drawbacks would be beta, the best of the score raises it to an alpha minus.

SOURCES:

Forman, Denis. “Orpheus and Eurydice” in The Good Opera Guide. New York: The Modern Library, 1998. pp.464-472.

“Orphée et Eurydice”. Wikimedia: last modified 22 juillet 2018. fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphée_et_Eurydice

“Orfeo ed Euridice”. Wikimedia: last modified 14 May 2018. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orfeo_ed_Euridice

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6 thoughts on “Christoph Willibald Gluck: Orphee et Eurydice (1774 version)

      1. Nick,

        I’m going to ask you a personal question here: how do I create an index for my posts? I’m basically an amateur at designing a site and I really don’t know how to organize a links page that will be in some kind of chronological order.

        Thanks for any advice,

        Phil

        Like

      2. Just saw your message. (E-mail me next time!) You’ve figured it out… Looks good!

        I use WordPress. I created a page (not a blog post), and put it in the top menu.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s really the Orpheus myth, there isn’t very much to it. Orpheus marries Eurydice, she dies, he goes to hades to get her back, looks at her, she is lost forever, the end. It requires 3 characters. It really isn’t philistine to admit that. Offenbach at the very least is far more witty, King Carrot after all!

    Like

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