Myth and Recovery, Music and Rebellion: A Note from Music Director James Conlon on Orpheus and Eurydice

“But Lot’s wife looked back as she lingered behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
Genesis 19:17, Luke 17:32

“Then he turned to her. It was too soon; she was still in the cavern. He saw her in the dim light, and he held out his arms to clasp her; but on the instant she was gone.
The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology)

The act of looking back, with its rewards and perils, reveals, conceals, mystifies and clarifies. It can be a source of inspiration or of loss and regret. It is an inducement to creativity or a temptation to indulge our regressive tendencies.

James Conlon, Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera (Photo: Robert Millard)

James Conlon, Richard Seaver Music Director of LA Opera (Photo: Robert Millard)

Orpheus, the greatest musician and poet of Greek mythology, enchanted his listeners with melodious verses and lyric beauty. He calmed storms, relieved suffering, tamed infernal beasts, soothed anguish and spoke to the heart. He incarnated the power to stir emotions and became a kind of secular patron saint, especially venerated by artists.

He was a force for good, capable of rebellion and prepared to break rules in his role of rescuer. He braved the Underworld to resurrect his wife. But as curiosity led Adam and Eve to pick the forbidden fruit, and Lot’s wife to glance back at Sodom, Orpheus offended the gods by failing to observe the one arbitrary rule set to test him—not to look back at Eurydice while leading her out of Hades.

When Europe, emerging from the Dark Ages, looked back to Ancient Greece and Rome, it was neither cast out nor turned into a pillar of salt. Instead, Europe blossomed with the glories of the Renaissance, an era that would inspire the creation of opera in 1598. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was the patriarch of operatic reform, and his most famous works were drawn from Greek mythology. Orpheus was a model for the composer, a musician and rebel like him. Gluck too, looked back but instead of losing his Eurydice, he found his muse. His operas, his manifesto of reforms and his conception of the theory of opera left their mark on history.

Gluck strove to emphasize dramatic expression over what he perceived as the vainglorious exhibitionism of his era’s opera stars. He shunned archetypal characters and cliché-ridden intrigues, reclaiming the power of declamation over vocal virtuosity. And although Gluck deserves great credit for this, as much or more is due to his principal librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, (1714-1795), the driving force who articulated their manifesto, published in the preface to the score of their later opera, Alceste.

Their reforms were intended to “restrict the music to its true purpose of serving to give expression to the poetry.” Da capo arias (in three sections: a beginning, a contrasting middle, and a repetition of the first, embellished with showy vocal ornamentation) were eliminated, as were most opportunities for displays of vocal agility and improvisation. Vocal lines were simplified to enhance the intelligibility of the words. Recitatives were accompanied by the orchestra instead of harpsichord and had more connection to the lyrical music surrounding it. Purely instrumental music, such as the overture, expressed something about the subject, to prepare listeners for the action.

There are various accounts of the original Orpheus myth, but none included the happy ending seized upon by Italian opera composers. Excising the beginning and end of Orpheus’ story, it became opera’s first and fundamental love story, adapted by pioneering composers including Jacopo Peri (Euridice, 1600), Giulio Caccini (Euridice, 1602) and, most significantly, Claudio Monteverdi (L’Orfeo, 1607). Since then, at a conservative estimate, at least 75 Orpheus operas have been written. More will surely come.

A 1775 portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck by Joseph Duplessis

A 1775 portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck by Joseph Duplessis

Gluck wrote two versions, both of which he revised and amended. The first, Orfeo ed Euridice, was written in 1762 for Vienna, in Italian, and the second, Orphée et Eurydice, in 1774 for Paris, in French. It is this latter version that LA Opera is presenting. The primary tone in both is bereavement and mourning, contrasted with courage and determination. Despite the creators’ reform-minded principles, compromises were made. The conventional operatic happy ending was retained. In the French version, the dance element was greatly expanded to give the Parisian public what it demanded most: the ballet! The “symphonic” overture remained intact. But the purity, grace and inspiration of Gluck’s music is always in keeping with the nobility of the subject.

Over time, consistent with the universality of Orpheus himself, great artists clamored to interpret him. The voice type of the protagonist changed. It passed from the original castrato (in the original Vienna version), to tenor (for the Paris revision) to mezzo-soprano (in Hector Berlioz’ 19th-century adaptation). After the castrati had died out, mezzo-sopranos won the upper hand, but even baritones had their day. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau became the most prominent of these, and it was he, together with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lucia Popp, who sang the first Orfeo I was to hear live, in Carnegie Hall, during my high school years.

Berlioz and Richard Wagner, both of whom also looked back to myth (Greek and Nordic, respectively) for inspiration, took a great interest in Gluck. Berlioz’s memoirs are testimony to his fascination with him. With the help of the young Camille Saint-Saëns, Berlioz made his own adaptation of Orphée in 1859. Wagner saw in Gluck’s reforms a precursor of his own.

In 1762, the year of Orfeo’s Viennese premiere, a six-year-old Mozart was touring Europe as a keyboard prodigy; Benjamin Franklin was perfecting the glass harmonica. By the time Orphée arrived in Paris, the French capital was teeming with controversy. Twenty years earlier, it had already passed though the Querelle des Bouffons (Quarrel of the Comic Actors), which pitted aficionados of French and Italian opera against each other. Now, a new rivalry emerged between Gluck’s followers and the defenders of Italian tradition, who mobilized behind composer Niccolò Piccini. They bickered and argued, sometimes violently. Franklin, during his Parisian sojourn, remarked with characteristic irony that the French were fortunate to live under such “a mild government” that there was no subject of contention “but the perfections and imperfections of foreign music.”

Even if Gluck himself did not always live up to the noble ideals of Calzabigi’s tract, its fundamental ideas had been released into the universe. With many starts and stops over the years, those ideals won out, prevailing to this day

This complicated but ultimately successful marriage between musical and dramatic values has sustained a robust operatic tradition. Our fluency with that tradition gives us the strength and privilege to “look back,” not in peril and trepidation but with admiration. Our modern ethos, that of opera’s highest aspirations, owes an enormous debt to Gluck and Calzabigi. The product of their collaboration, either the Italian Orfeo or the French Orphée, is one of the first resplendent examples of those ideals.

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2 Responses to Myth and Recovery, Music and Rebellion: A Note from Music Director James Conlon on Orpheus and Eurydice

  1. shareit appp says:

    informative articles. thank you for sharing information

  2. Michele says:

    Thanks, I appreciate the background information. I live 300 miles north and travel to LA as a Season ticket holder. It is always special for me and these advanced writing enhance my knowledge and pleasure. See you on the 15th.

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