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Maria Callas – “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” – “Orphée et Eurydice” – Christoph Willibald Gluck

by Luca

“Orfeo ed Euridice” (French version: “Orphée et Eurydice”; English translation: “Orpheus and Eurydice”) is an opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck based on the myth of Orpheus, set to a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. It belongs to the genre of the “azione teatrale”, meaning an opera on a mythological subject with choruses and dancing. The piece was first performed at Vienna on 5 October 1762. “Orfeo ed Euridice” is the first of Gluck’s “reform” operas, in which he attempted to replace the abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria with a “noble simplicity” in both the music and the drama.
The opera is the most popular of Gluck’s works, and one of the most influential on subsequent German opera. Variations on its plot – the underground rescue-mission in which the hero must control, or conceal, his emotions – include Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”.
Though originally set to an Italian libretto, “Orfeo ed Euridice” owes much to the genre of French opera, particularly in its use of accompanied recitative and a general absence of vocal virtuosity. Indeed, twelve years after the 1762 premiere, Gluck re-adapted the opera to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience at the Académie Royale de Musique with a libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline. This reworking was given the title “Orphée et Eurydice”, and several alterations were made in vocal casting and orchestration to suit French tastes.
In 1769 for Le feste d’Apollo at Parma which was conducted by the composer, Gluck transposed part of the role of Orfeo up for the soprano castrato Giuseppe Millico, maintaining a libretto in Italian. Gluck expanded and rewrote parts of the opera, and changed the role of Orpheus from a part for a castrato to one for high tenor or the so-called haute-contre – the usual voice in French opera for heroic characters – as the French almost never used castrati. This version of the work also had additional ballet sequences, conforming to the tastes that were prevalent at the time in Paris, and included the long “Dance of the Furies”, originally from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, and the famous “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” for flute and strings. By 1825 operatic castrati themselves had virtually vanished, and performances of the original version for castrato became increasingly rare. This version has not been performed in modern times.
When the tenor Adolphe Nourrit sang the role at the Opéra in 1824 his music was altered. Giacomo Meyerbeer suggested to the French contralto Pauline Viardot that she should perform the role of Orfeo. The composer Hector Berlioz was a close friend of Viardot and the leading expert in France on the music of Gluck. He knew the score of “the largely forgotten Italian original as thoroughly as he knew the French”, and agreed to prepare a version of the opera – in four acts – with Viardot’s voice in mind, adapting the role of Orphée for a female alto.