In 1774, Christoph Gluck — the son of a gamekeeper and Marie Antoinette’s music teacher — brought his lifelong reform of opera to Paris with “Orphée et Eurydice.”
In May of 1774, 15 years before the French Revolution, the 18-year-old Marie Antoinette ascended the throne as queen of France. Less than a month before that, German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, her former music teacher — and the son of a gamekeeper — made his debut in Paris with his opera “Iphigénie en Aulide.”
Thanks to Gluck’s tutelage, the new queen had become a passionate musician (she was known for her love of playing the harp), and her patronage ensured the composer access to the influential Parisian opera scene, for which he wrote his final sequence of stage works.
Gluck had started fomenting a revolution of his own with “Orfeo ed Euridice,” which premiered in 1762 in Vienna, Marie Antoinette’s native city. In August 1774, soon after “Iphigénie en Aulide,” he unveiled a substantially revised, expanded version of “Orfeo.” Now titled “Orphée et Eurydice,” it incorporated French musical practice of the time — by recasting Orpheus, for example, from a castrato to a high tenor role.
Pacific MusicWorks: Christoph Gluck’s ‘Orphée et Eurydice’
7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 20-21, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $10-$65 (206-543-4880 or artsuw.org).
“The myth of Orpheus has been fundamental to the history of opera and was the topic of the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ from 1607,” Stephen Stubbs explained during a recent phone conversation. “After many other versions, a century and a half later Gluck called on the myth again for his reformation of the art form.”
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Stubbs, founder of Pacific MusicWorks and a senior artist in residence at the University of Washington School of Music, will conduct “Orphée et Eurydice” this weekend (May 20-22) in a new staging by the acclaimed French director Gilbert Blin.
Gluck, Stubbs said, “wanted to eliminate all the twists and turns and digressions of plot that characterized late-Baroque opera.”
Gluck also simplified the musical side of the equation to free opera from artifice — such as displays of star-centered virtuosity — and to cultivate what, as he wrote in his manifesto-like preface to the opera “Alceste,” “a beautiful simplicity.” The composer’s reformist ideas anticipated Richard Wagner’s drama-centered focus for opera in the following century.
It’s easy to understand why the Orpheus myth offered an appealing platform for Gluck to rethink the very essence of opera. The story of the mythic singer’s journey to the underworld to bring back his lost beloved dramatizes the power of music itself. For all of the opera’s “beautiful simplicity,” Gluck found opportunities to depict a spectrum ranging from the horrors of hell to the serenity of the Elysian Fields, the classical version of heaven.
Stubbs and Blin previously collaborated on two of the finest Orpheus operas that preceded Gluck’s. For the Boston Early Music Festival, where Blin serves as opera director and Stubbs is artistic co-director, they have staged Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers” by French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Tenor Aaron Sheehan, who sang the title role in those productions, joins Stubbs and Blin once again to interpret Gluck’s “Orphée.” In 2015, their recording of the Charpentier version won a Grammy Award for best opera recording.
Pacific MusicWorks will perform “Orphée” using the tuning convention from Gluck’s era, in which notes are sounded at a slightly lower pitch than their modern equivalents. “That means there is much less strain for the tenor,” Stubbs said. “Aaron is able to sing in a more floating, high register. To my mind, there is no question that Gluck wrote the part to express the poetic quality of Orpheus.”
“Orphée et Eurydice” will be the third example of the special program Stubbs has developed as UW artist-in-residence. As with “Semele” and “The Magic Flute” over the past two seasons, the program mingles professional musicians with UW students to stage operas in period style.
“We want the show to be a daring performance,” Blin said, “that reflects the spirit of France in the late 18th century.”