Go inside this production of Orphée et Eurydice with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Orphée, a choreographer, rehearses his new ballet, The Isle of the Dead – inspired by the painting of Arnold Böcklin. Orphée’s wife Eurydice, the company’s temperamental star performer, is to dance the principal role. She arrives late – they quarrel. Furious, Eurydice leaves the rehearsal.
An accident – Eurydice is dead. Friends and passersby mourn the sudden loss. In shock and tortured by grief and regret, Orphée sadly recalls his wedding. In despair, he suffers a breakdown. His assistant, Amour, comforts him, suggesting the mythical journey of Orpheus into the Underworld.
In his madness, Orphée imagines himself in Hades, where the Furies angrily block his to attempt to pass through the Underworld. He begs them to pity him, explaining that if they had suffered as he has done, they would not be so indifferent. Calmed by Orphée, the Furies allow him to enter Elysium.
Orphée is astonished by the serenity and beauty of Elysium, but he feels that only after being reunited with Eurydice can he savor its joys. His impatience is finally placated when his wife is brought to him. As in the myth, the condition of her being restored to life is that he not look at her until they are back on Earth.
Without looking at his wife, Orphée urges her to follow him quickly. Astonished to realize that she is still alive, Eurydice wonders how this can be, but Orphée refuses to answer any of her pleading questions. Stunned by his silence, her temperament flares up at what she perceives as his indifference. Unable to stand her pleading and accusations any longer, Orphée turns to her. Eurydice dies again. Orphée laments her death bitterly. Amour convinces him that his suffering has conquered all, and that Eurydice will live on in Orphée’s heart, and in the imaginary ballet he created.
John Neumeier is director, choreographer, set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer for Lyric’s new production of Orphée et Eurydice. Following his first day of rehearsals, he spoke about the work with Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines.
Can you explain the appeal of the piece itself?
It’s appealing because of its unique combination of a mythical theme being realized in a very realistic, director way. I see in this a parallel to ballet itself, which in its form is highly stylized – although its instrument remains essentially the human being. But as far as I’m concerned, Orphée’s essence is a very simple, direct expression of emotion.
I know you’re fascinated by the history of this opera.
Yes, it’s so interesting, in that it was the first attempt to create a Gesamtkunstwerk [complete work of art]. Gluck and his choreographer, librettist, and designer all came together with quite similar intentions for the premiere of the original Italian version, Orfeo ed Euridice, in 1762.
Gluck’s basic purpose in Orphée was to communicate simple human emotions without hiding them in musical or vocal virtuosity. As this opera’s director, I need to communicate with the audience through emotions that are recognizable – that are common to us all. We’ve all experienced loss – perhaps not to the point of madness, which I think is what happens in Orphée – and obviously, most of us haven’t journeyed to the Underworld. Nonetheless, we’re dealing with this mythical subject in realistic terms.
Can you describe your own emotional response to Gluck’s music?
It’s a very direct response for me – that’s why I agreed to do this opera. French isn’t my native language. I understand, but I don’t even need the text to feel the emotion in the music. My technique of creating depends upon a spontaneous emotional reaction to music that creates in me the spark of inspiration, the spark of improvisation. I don’t sit in a room and plan steps; I go to rehearsal, I put myself in a situation where there is attention and a sense of expectation. The dancers are waiting for me to do something. Although I have books and books of research regarding Orphée, I must forget everything, listen to the piano as if I’ve never heard this music before, and let myself move without thinking. This music gives me that opportunity.
You’re placing the piece in a contemporary milieu – can you explain it?
This piece is not just a beautiful Grecian myth or a lovely Baroque opera. The love that inspired Orphée destroys him, because he just can’t help it – he has to turn around! This makes me weep, because it’s so true: in our lives we make such firm resolutions, and yet our weakness common to all of us makes us do such stupid things! I think that’s why I’m putting it in a contemporary setting. Obviously there are sections of it that are more fantasy-like: what, for example, are these Furies, the people with snakes coming out of their heads who are blocking Orphée’s way? Who are the mystical dwellers of Elysium? I’m thinking also of the presence of Amour, who in my version will always accompany Orphée. I think he, Amour, is in love with Orphée. This is why he has this idea, to take him on his imaginary journey.
You’re Orphée’s director, choreographer, and the designer of sets, costumes, and lighting. What’s your goal in wearing these five hats for this production?
In a word, unity. It’s also the sense of not having to explain to another artist that what we’ve planned is wrong. I respect the people I work with very much, and it is truly very difficult for me to say, “No, that’s not working,” but I can say it very easily to myself.
I started designing when I was a beginning choreographer because I couldn’t afford anyone else. Before I studied dance, I studied painting. That was the conflict in my youth: would I follow dance or be a painter? Dancing won out, but immediately dancing meant for me creating – not only dancing with choreography from someone else, but creating something myself. When I was actually able to put something on a stage, the question was, what does the world of this ballet look like?
My recent productions started from movement, from choreography, and for me, when I create movement, I’m already imagining how the costumes will move. Generally we have costumes made for the beginning of rehearsals to try out fabrics and cuts. I’m also already seeing the color of the light and imagining the space in which it’s all happening. They are not separate things. Creating a ballet means creating a new world.
What sort of impression would you like to leave the public when they see your Orphée production?
I would like them to recognize something of themselves in it. I would like them to be reminded of similar experiences – of sorrow, of anxiety, of anger, of madness, of their own human frailty.
Welcome to Lyric Opera of Chicago, where we’re excited to launch the 2017/18 season with one of opera’s most moving masterpieces, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice.
Operagoers who grew up with a fascination for Greek myths have marveled time and time again that, for more than four centuries, opera composers have been irresistibly drawn to these incomparable stories. Of all the many myths that have been illuminated in operatic form, none has been more popular than that of Orpheus. This is the immortal tale of the world’s greatest poet/musician, whose longing for his dead wife leads him to journey to the Underworld to bring her back to earth. From the first truly great opera – Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) – to today, composers have viewed Orpheus as one of the most affecting characters in Western civilization. His devotion, passion, and, ultimately, despair strike a sympathetic chord in all of us.
More than 150 years after Monteverdi came Gluck, who ennobled the Orpheus story. When Lyric previously produced Gluck’s opera 11 seasons ago, we chose the original 1762 version, with the original Italian text, and with Orpheus sung by a countertenor. Our production this season is the 1774 Paris revision in French, in its Lyric premiere, with a tenor portraying the protagonist.
Unlike the original version, the 1774 Orphée offers a marvelous virtuosity in the music for the hero. To satisfy the expectations of the Paris audience, there is also a great deal of superb ballet music, including the celebrated “Dance of the Furies” and “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” All the musical and dramatic glory of the original version is retained in this version, making for an unforgettably beautiful retelling of the myth.
The decision to produce the 1774 version has everything to do with a collaboration with The Joffrey Ballet that I consider one of the most exciting developments at Lyric since my tenure began six years ago. All of us in this company are thrilled that the internationally renowned Joffrey dancers will perform as a crucial element of Orphée. This is a coproduction with LA Opera and Staatsoper Hamburg; I’m very pleased that the audiences of those two companies will also have the joy of experiencing this Orphée production.
Our dream of doing this Orphée has been realized thanks to the unique artist whose creative imagination will illuminate this story for all of us: the legendary John Neumeier, longtime director of the Hamburg Ballet. As director, choreographer, and designer of the sets, costumes, and lighting, John has created a magnificently unified vision of this work for our audience.
I’m delighted to welcome our Orphée, Dmitry Korchak, to Lyric. With his impressive technique, elegant musicianship, and charismatic presence, he is sure to make a memorable Lyric debut. It’s a great pleasure to welcome back Andriana Chuchman (Eurydice), a Ryan Opera Center alumna who has become one of the most musically and theatrically accomplished lyric sopranos in North America. Completing the trio of principals is Lauren Snouffer (Amour), whose sparkling voice and presence delighted us in Rusalka. On the podium is a great friend of the company, Harry Bicket, one of today’s most celebrated interpreters of pre-1800 repertoire, as he’s shown repeatedly at Lyric.
Prepare yourself for one of the most thought-provoking and deeply moving experiences you will ever have in an opera house.
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What do composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, painter Jean-BaptisteCamille Corot, filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and playwright Tennessee Williams have in common? An attraction to the myth of Orpheus. One can hardly blame those incomparable creators and countless others in a multitude of media, for that name belongs to one of the most touching figures in the history of Western civilization. Orpheus is a hero who has endured and, even today, retains his power to move us to tears, just as he did the Furies of the Underworld. He is, of course, a symbol of the glory of music itself, but he also embodies devoted love and – in Gluck’s opera, especially – the capability of that love to change the course of a life.
In opera, it’s Gluck’s depiction of Orpheus that we know best. The German composer’s achievement is stupendous by any standards, but doubly so when we consider that The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists close to 60 other “Orpheus operas.” Stylistically they encompass the early Baroque (many works, most prominently Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo), the rivetingly contemporary (Darius Milhaud’s Les malheurs d’Orphée, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus), and everything in between. Gluck, however, stands alone for both the mesmerizing loveliness and the heartrending eloquence that he brought to this immortal tale.
For those of us who explored Greek myths in our youth (courtesy of such storytellers as Robert Graves and Edith Hamilton in their fabulous myth anthologies), surely no character made a more profound impression than Orpheus. We were deeply touched by his plight and devastated by its sad end. Unlike Gluck’s opera, in mythology Eros/Cupid/Love didn’t restore Eurydice to life. Instead, poor Orpheus returned from Hades to lament her death, wandering in utter misery. The Maenads – wild women who followed Dionysus – resented that Orpheus paid no attention to them. They caught him without his all-soothing lyre and tore him limb from limb. He was given a proper burial by the nine Muses, goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. Orpheus’s soul was transported to Elysium, where he was united with his beloved Eurydice.
On those occasions when Orpheus did have his lyre in hand, he gave the world music of a sort that had never been experienced before. His voice and his songs penetrated to any listener’s heart, and their beauty provided unique joy to all ears. Of course, it wasn’t only human beings who were entranced by him: Orpheus’s music was even able to tame Cerberus, the fearsome, multi-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hades, as well as the Furies.
From the very earliest years of opera’s development as an art form, it was inevitable that Orpheus would attract composers. In the work that scholars consider the first surviving opera, Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (1600), the title character may be Orpheus’s wife, but he remains the protagonist. By 1607, when an aristocratic audience heard the first truly great opera, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the hero’s name rightly took its place in the title. In Peri’s version Orpheus and Eurydice return together to earth and live happily ever after. In Monteverdi’s, Orfeo accepts the god Apollo’s invitation to dwell in heaven, where he’ll be able to behold Eurydice among the stars.
Do elements of the Orpheus/Eurydice story exist in other mythologies? Prof. Wendy Doniger of The University of Chicago, whose work has significantly enhanced international understanding of mythology, points to Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, who looks back at the doomed city of Sodom and is turned into a pillar of salt. Doniger mentions, too, that “there is also the story of bringing Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter, up from the dead. She’s brought back for six months of every year. There are other successful fetchings of people from the Underworld – Savitri in Hindu mythology, who retrieves her husband from death, for example. By the power of their virtue, their heroism, people in mythology bring their spouses from death.”
The great message of Gluck’s opera is that true love triumphs over death: if you love someone enough, you get them back and live happily ever after! But ultimately this piece, in whatever incarnation, is about the power of music, not only the power of love. “This is hardly your average lovesick guy,” notes Doniger. “Orpheus is the son of Calliope, the Muse of Music. If you can charm nature, then you can charm death.”
Orphée et Eurydice began life in 1762 in Vienna, in Italian, as Orfeo ed Euridice. The work embodied what came to be known as the “Gluckian reforms.” Orfeo was the first of three “reform operas” (next came Alceste, the story of a woman who literally goes through hell, Orpheus-like, to save her husband, followed by Paride ed Elena, the story of Paris and Helen of Troy). The reforms were represented by a basic idea that Gluck termed “beautiful simplicity.” He called for a new naturalness in the way a text was delivered, a no-frills attitude devoid of emoting purely for effect. In contrast to serious Italian opera of the previous generation, Gluck wanted plots that flowed in a direct way – no convolutions of any kind. He aimed to have the music “serve poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments.” All of that came into play in Orfeo, which offered an austerely lovely style. The work consistently focused on the protagonist; Orfeo expressed his agony and ecstasy through exquisitely sculpted arias, as well as through recitatives that projected all the directness of natural speech. No Gluck interpreter can excel without a total commitment to eloquent delivery of the text.
Gluck fashioned the role of Orfeo for one of the greatest singers of the 18th century, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni. He had what we would consider today to be a countertenor’s range, and by all accounts he was matchlessly expressive (years before Orfeo, he earned the admiration of Handel, who revised three Messiah arias especially for him). Although Guadagni was capable of stupendous flights of vocal display, Gluck had no need to call upon the showier aspect of the singer’s artistry in Orphée et Eurydice.
The virtuosic element missing from the original version of Orfeo was brought into play when the work was substantially revised for the Paris premiere. This was thanks to the brilliance of Joseph Legros, exemplar of a vocal category highly favored in French opera at the time: the haute-contre, a lyric tenor whose voice “sits” exceptionally high. Very particular then, as now, regarding their likes and dislikes where singers were concerned, Parisian audiences frowned on castrati, who never made any headway at all in Paris, even in their heyday. Onstage tenors were the heroes, and Orphée would have been no exception. Keys were adjusted to allow for Legros to negotiate a vocal line conceived for Guadagni, and there were some marvelously effective alterations, such as the end of the great lament “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” (“I've lost my Eurydice”): the stabbing beauty of the repeated high B-flats – on the word “douleur” (“pain”) – makes for a much more dramatic climax than in the aria’s original version.
At the time that Gluck was invited to write for the Académie Royale de Musique (i.e. the Opéra) in Paris, Legros had long since established himself there as one of the company’s most eminent stars. Initially Gluck was reportedly not at all pleased with his dramatic presence and vocalism, and gave Legros a good deal of grief, accusing him of screaming rather than singing. His advice: “Scream with just as much anguish as if someone were sawing through your bone. And, if you can, realize this pain inwardly, spiritually, and as if it came from the heart.” Gluck’s admonitions apparently worked – Legros triumphed as Orphée, with his achievement in the role hailed as something of a miracle.
Gluck, who had composed 41 operas by the time he arrived in Paris, had begun there in April 1774 with the premiere of Iphigénie en Aulide. Orphée, an even greater success, followed four months later. The Paris audience wouldn’t have considered the original version a full evening of opera (it contains about 100 minutes of music), therefore major additions were needed. Most important on the vocal side was a hair-raisingly florid new aria for Legros, “L’espoir renaît dans mon âme” (“Hope is reborn in my soul”), in which Orphée proclaims that he’ll brave the terrors of Hades to find Eurydice. Gluck also gave Sophie Arnould, the prominent soprano who sang Eurydice, a ravishing entrance aria in Elysium, “Cet asile aimable et tranquille” (“This pleasant and tranquil haven”). Amour, too – created by a third major star, soprano Sophie Levasseur – was given a brief, deliciously buoyant aria sung to Orphée, “Si les doux accords de ta lyre” (“If the sweet sounds of your lyre”). In the last act Gluck also added an extended trio for the lovers and Amour.
While altering vocal lines, Gluck also created important dance episodes to please a public for whom dance in opera had always been essential. These included the thrillingly aggressive “Dance of the Furies,” as well as the dulcet “Dance of the Blessed Spirits" (probably the most celebrated purely instrumental passage in Gluck’s entire oeuvre) and three dance movements for the final celebration, making a total of seven for that scene. Fittingly for Paris, Orphée ended not with a chorus, as in 1762, but with a danced Chaconne, confirming the vital role that dance now played in the work.
For decades this opera was known strictly as a vehicle for female contralto or mezzo-soprano, up to the 1980s, when countertenors began singing Orfeo. The tenor version, however, cropped up only very occasionally. Nowadays, however, we’re fortunate to have an ever-increasing number of tenors – among them Dmitry Korchak at Lyric this season – who not only sing eloquently in French, but also possess the technical prowess to sustain the extrordinarily high lines Gluck gave Legros 243 years ago. At the same time, ballet companies in major cities are full of performers who can illuminate the opera’s dance episodes. With artistry of this high level available, opera companies worldwide will surely follow Lyric’s example by more frequently presenting Gluck’s masterpiece onstage in its glorious French guise.
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has appeared annually on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ "Opera Quiz" for the past decade and also contributes regularly to opera-related publications and recording companies internationally.