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Orpheus, the legendary lyre player of Greek myth, has been treated in opera many times, with particular focus on the death of his wife, Eurydice, and Orpheus’s attempts to free her from the underworld. Operatic treatments were created by such noteworthy composers as Monteverdi, Telemann, Rameau, Gluck, Haydn, Offenbach, Debussy, Milhaud, and Birtwistle. This article focuses on the operas by Christoph Gluck, which are among his so-called “reform operas.”
Gluck wrote two Orpheus and Eurydice operas: one in Italian, called Orfeo ed Euridice, and a second in French, called Orphée et Eurydice. Each opera is in three acts, with the Italian version from a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi and the French version from a libretto by Pierre Louis Moline. The Italian version is characterized as azione teatrale, and it opened in Vienna at the Burgtheater on 5 October 1762. The French version is characterized as Tragédie opera and opened in Paris at Opéra on 2 August 1774.
The story lines of the two versions of Orpheus and Eurydice are similar, though the scene divisions are different. In Act I of Orpheus and Eurydice, there is a gathering at Eurydice’s tomb, with Orpheus joining nymphs and shepherds in mourning. When they leave, Orpheus grows angry with the gods, and determines to bring Eurydice back. Cupid arrives and reveals to Orpheus that Jove will give him a chance to free Eurydice from Hades: the road is open, but Orpheus must win over the Furies by singing. There is one prohibition: Orpheus must not look at Eurydice before they return to Earth, or they will be separated forever. Orpheus realizes that this type of behavior would upset Eurydice, but he agrees to the terms.
In Act II of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus enters the underworld, and is immediately threatened by the Furies, as well as demons. He pleads with them for sympathy, and they are finally moved to allow him to continue his journey to Elysium. In the Elysian Fields, Orpheus questions the Blessed Spirits he finds, and they tell him the Eurydice is coming. She arrives, and Orpheus begins to lead her, without looking directly at her.
Act III of Orpheus and Eurydice begins with Orpheus’s urgings to Eurydice to make haste in following him. She is confused and suspicious, and they argue, but he cannot explain. When Eurydice faints, Orpheus turns to look at her, and she dies, turning Orpheus to mourning again. Devastated, Orpheus is about to take his own life in order to rejoin Eurydice, when Cupid returns with a message. Orpheus has proved his fidelity, and so saying, he brings Eurydice, alive again, to Orpheus. Orpheus and Eurydice join Cupid and the shepherds and shepherdesses in rejoicing.