Orfeo has lost his beloved Euridice and goes, literally, to hell and back to find her. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian star in the title roles of Christoph Willibald Gluck's masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice, in which love confounds death, and art triumphs over all.
Orfeo ed Euridice is the first of Gluck's celebrated "reform" operas, an attempt to replace extraneous production values and vocal fireworks with something simpler: music and drama meant to touch the heart.
Orfeo manages to bring Euridice back from the underworld through the godly intervention of Amore, sung by soprano Ambur Braid, a member of the COC Studio Ensemble. The COC Orchestra and Chorus are conducted by Harry Bicket. Director Robert Carsen created this acclaimed production for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006 and returned to the COC for this staging.
Bill Richardson will interview countertenor Lawrence Zazzo
Cast and Characters
ORFEO ED EURIDICE
Opera in three acts
Music by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto by Raniero de' Calzabigi
First Performance Burgtheater, Vienna, October 5, 1762
This Perfomance: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, recorded May 17, 2011
Production originally staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago
(in order of vocal appearance)
Orfeo: Lawrence Zazzo, counter-tenor
Amore: Ambur Braid, soprano
Euridice: Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano
Canadian Opera Company Chorus
Chorus Master: Sandra Horst
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Conductor: Harry Bicket
Director: Robert Carsen
Synopsis (as provided by the Canadian Opera Company)
Act one: by Euridice's grave
Orfeo and his friends are grieving for Euridice. Left alone, Orfeo appeals to his beloved to return, and then to the Gods to grant mercy for his overwhelming grief, but his entreaties go unanswered. Finally grief turns to resolve and Orfeo curses the fates. He is determined to find Euridice, even if it means facing death himself to reach her. Amore appears to help Orfeo, telling him that Jupiter feels pity for his grief. If Orfeo can cross through the Underworld alive and calm the Furies with his singing, he will be able to find Euridice and return to Earth with her. There is one condition: he cannot look at his wife until they have returned to Earth, nor can he tell her of this condition. If he breaks it, he will lose her forever. Orfeo is unnerved and apprehensive about how the unsuspecting Euridice will react when they are reunited. But he accepts the Gods' challenge and asks for their help as he descends into the Underworld.
Act two: Hades, Elysium
When Orfeo appears, the Furies angrily wonder how a mortal could dare to attempt to pass through the Underworld. Orfeo begs them to feel pity for him, explaining that had they suffered for love as he has suffered, they would not be so indifferent. The Furies are calmed by Orfeo, and allow him to pass from Hades to Elysium.
Orfeo is moved by the calm, serenity and beauty of Elysium. However he feels that he will only share in its joys when he is reunited with Euridice. Eventually she is brought to him. Orfeo is impatient to leave: without looking at her, he takes her hand and starts to lead her back to Earth.
Act three: the return to Earth
Orfeo urges Euridice to follow him. She wonders how she can be alive. Orfeo replies that she will soon know more, but begs her to ask no more questions. Surprised that he refuses to embrace her, Euridice wonders if she is no longer beautiful. She implores Orfeo to turn around and look at her but he refuses. Plagued by doubts, Euridice confesses that she would rather die than live with an Orfeo who no longer loves her. Feeling faint, she collapses. Orfeo can no longer bear it: he turns around to help his wife, and she dies instantly. Overwhelmed with grief, Orfeo is about to kill himself again, when Amore once more prevents him. Declaring that he has suffered enough, Amore brings Euridice back to life. Orfeo embraces her ecstatically. Orfeo, Euridice and their friends celebrate Love, which they declare is able to conquer all cruelty and doubt.
When Gluck began composing Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, he had already made a conscious decision to attempt a reform of contemporary opera and its performance style. He was convinced that the essence of the art form was being lost in extraneous musical and production values which had corrupted the genre of opera seria, and Gluck was even more unhappy with the excessive vocal ornamentation so fashionable with star singers who rivalled each other in technical display. Gluck decided it was time for opera to return to the basics, which meant a return to a simple and direct expression of essential human emotion. It was equally clear to him that the essence of this could be found primarily in the Greek theatre and Mythology.
Orfeo ed Euridice became the first of Gluck's celebrated "reform" operas, all of which are based in some form or other on classical works. Among the titles which followed are: Paride ed Elena, Iphigénie en Aulide, Alceste, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Armide. Gluck later adapted Orfeo ed Euridice into French when he was Court composer to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (whom he had taught as a young girl in Vienna). Orphée et Eurydice however, was a rather different affair than the original version. More complex and less pure, it was also considerably longer (mostly due to the addition of ballet music, in the tradition of the French opera-ballet).
The version which we are performing is the original Vienna version, sung in Italian. There is nothing which can compare to it for the simplicity of its construction or the directness of its emotional impact. The Orpheus myth in this version is reduced to only three characters: Orfeo, Euridice and the young God Amore. In addition there is the important involvement of the Chorus, who in Act I and Act III are present as Orfeo's friends, and in Act II alternate as the Furies who inhabit Hades, and the Spirits of Elysium.
As has often been stated, opera's main terrain is that of Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death). The Orpheus myth, particularly in Gluck and Calzabigi's retelling, combines the two in a particularly effective way. Which of us has not longed to breach the mystery of Death and bring a loved one back to Life? Orfeo manages it, albeit through the Godly intervention of Amore. But Amore can also be seen as his Subconscious or even his Unconscious, willing him to move through his grief to take action. However it is the frailty of Orfeo's humanity which causes him to break the condition laid upon him (that he not look at Euridice while bringing her back from the Underworld). And it is this essential human quality which makes the work and the character so touching.
Euridice, as Orfeo rightly anticipates, is unable to prevent herself from giving way to doubts and fears that her husband no longer loves her, since he refuses to look at her. The audience knows that Orfeo has risked all for love of his wife and that no man's love could be greater than his. But Euridice's perspective is also entirely understandable, and their great scene in Act III is a brilliant exposition of how difficult it can be to communicate with the person one loves most. Orfeo fails, but he fails for the same reason he deserves to succeed: for love. And that is why, in spite of his failure, Amore appears to him again and rewards him a second time.
When we first worked on this production for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006, the designer Tobias Hoheisel and I decided to try and create a physical world using as little as possible, as a kind of response to the extraordinary economy of Gluck's opera. We also decided to present the work using only the singers and chorus in the cast, without the addition of dancers. (My feeling at the time was that Orfeo ed Euridice should either be entirely danced - as Pina Bausch did so brilliantly in her 1975 production of the French version of the opera - or not have any dance at all, has not changed).
In any case, Gluck's opera appears to a 21st-century audience as radiantly modern: modern in construction, modern in psychology, and modern by what it leaves unsaid as well as by what it says. This great work which gives life to one of the Western world's most important mythologies, deserves to be interpreted, reinterpreted and seen again and again. I am very happy to have been entrusted with the Canadian Opera Company's first staging of this opera or indeed any opera by Gluck.
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