"Orpheus and Eurydice," opening at Seattle Opera on Feb. 25, is Gluck's watershed 1774 opera that portrays an enduring myth of tragic love, revisited and transformed over time by countless artists.
What makes a myth reverberate through thousands of years?
What makes artists of so many eras and creative modes — from the playwright Euripides and the poet John Dryden, to the filmmaker Jean Cocteau, the sculptor Rodin and painter Titian, to the modern composer Philip Glass — transform the same fable of love and loss again and again, gleaning meaning for their own age?
The Saturday opening of Seattle Opera’s new production of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” the company’s first presentation of the classic Christoph Gluck opera in 24 years, reminds us again of the exceptionally deep well of universal myth, and how it continually replenishes itself.
There have been, at minimum, dozens of operas, song cycles, instrumental works and ballets based on the tragic romance between the Greek musician Orpheus and his beloved Eurydice.
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In fact, the oldest opera we have fragments of (Jacopo Peri’s circa 1600 “Euridice”) predates Gluck’s watershed 1774 work by well over a century, as does Claudio Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” the most famous early opera.
The vivid Greek legend itself, which so stirs the heart and imagination, is handed down to us from the ancient world in numerous variations — as told by the poets Ovid and Virgil and others.
All classical accounts, though, portray Orpheus as a brilliant singer and poet, a muse of the gods, a master of the seven-string lyre who, in Shakespeare’s words,”… made trees/And the mountain tops that freeze /Bow themselves when he did sing. … “
And the Orpheus story is often depicted as the Roman poet Ovid did 8 A.D., in “Metamorphoses”: The much-prized musician falls in love with the beauteous Eurydice, but on their wedding day she is bitten by a venomous snake and dies.
The distraught Orpheus vows to rescue his wife from the subterranean reaches of death.
He begs for Eurydice’s release so beautifully in song, the god of the underworld, Pluto (Hades to the Greeks), and his queen, Persephone, agree to his plan, but with one caveat: Orpheus must walk ahead of Eurydice as he leads her from hell to the upper world. And he must never look back at her until they return.
But Orpheus cannot resist. He glances back to be sure Eurydice is behind him. Instantly she is plunged back into the underworld, never to return. And her husband is so bereft he spends the rest of his days wandering and singing, vowing never to love another woman.
(Orpheus, in some versions, later loved men instead, and was torn to bits by jealous female Maenads. But that’s another story — one also pondered by philosophers, poets and composers.)
From odes to video games
There are countless examples of famous plays (Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice”), films (Marcel Camus’ “Black Orpheus”), poems (Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”), paintings (by Titian) and sculptures (by Rodin) that take up the story.
Orpheus and Eurydice are even characters in a noted popular game, “Don’t Look Back,” created by Irish game designer Terry Cavanagh.
Beyond the realm of art, psychoanalyst Carl Jung and others have used Orpheus and Eurydice as models for certain psychological complexes.
What about this story resonates so continuously through the river of lore, and throughout Western culture? Why have Gluck and others seized so avidly on the passion and pain of this doomed couple, and why do audiences still immortalize them in every age?
Most basically, we can look to several allegorical themes in the fable that strike to the core of human experience, and transcend time, place and the vagaries of modernity:
The glory and the limitations of art. The music of Orpheus could charm the trees and persuade the gods, but not save a lost life — nor a great musician’s creative muse.
The mysterious ways of fate, and inescapability of death. Once you have tumbled into the underworld, there is no exit from it, no way back to life.
The power of love. Though the romance of Orpheus and Eurydice ended cruelly, their bond symbolizes the intensity of feeling and primal commitment that love can engender. Orpheus was, literally, willing to storm the gates of hell to be with his beloved.
The irony of emotional attachment. Orpheus was so attached to Eurydice, he could not resist the temptation to gaze on her during their ascent to the land of the living. He lost her when he could not even temporarily detach himself from her, as the gods had demanded.
Music scholars suggest Gluck chose the myth as the cornerstone for his first “reform opera,” because it allowed him and his librettist for the initial Italian version, Ranieri de’Calzabigi, to depart from the excessive musical ornamentation and superfluous arias fashionable in the waning Baroque era.
The classical simplicity and depth of feeling in the Orpheus legend appealed to Gluck, as did the possibilities of expressing an impassioned fable through a balanced blending of music, words and dramatic narrative.
Gluck’s initial 1762 “Orfeo ed Euridice” was deliberately more streamlined and naturalistic than most operas of the previous century.
The story was pared to its essence. And the score eschewed the flashy, dramatically irrelevant arias designed mainly to show off star singers, and was more akin to the crystalline style of Gluck’s inventive younger contemporaries, Mozart and Haydn.
Dramatist and music critic George Bernard Shaw was among those who, a century later, viewed Gluck as a direct precursor to another German opera innovator, composer Richard Wagner.
“Listen to ‘Orfeo,’ ” wrote Shaw, “and you hear the perfect union of the poem and the music — that growth of every musical form, melodic interval, harmonic progression, and orchestral tone out of some feeling or purpose belonging to the drama … “
In 1774, Gluck returned to the mythic story to create a new, French-language version of his opera, titled in translation, “Orphee et Eurydice.”
Gluck extensively revised his original score, and with a nod to French theatrical tastes added several ballet sequences — which modern choreographers have made good use of, including Seattle native Mark Morris in Stephen Wadsworth’s celebrated 1988 staging of “Orphee” at Seattle Opera.
Gluck was so proud of the French version, he wrote to a critic, “I agree with you that of all my compositions ‘Orphee’ is the only acceptable one. I ask forgiveness of the god of taste for having deafened my audience with other operas.”
While Gluck’s orchestral passages for “Orpheus and Eurydice” win high praise, the opera’s most famous piece of music is an exquisitely tender aria of lamentation Orpheus sings to Eurydice, as she lays dead in his arms.
Best known by its Italian title (“Che faro senza Euridice?”), the first lyric reads:
“What shall I do without Eurydice? / Where shall I go without my love? / Eurydice! Eurydice! / O heavens! Answer! / I am still true to you!”
That cry remains, reverberating in Gluck’s opera and so many other versions of a truly timeless romance.
Misha Berson: email@example.com