Arts and Entertainment

When Eurydice Gets a Good Ending: Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck

Review of the Met Opera’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2023 to 2024 season saw the return of a modern production of the much-celebrated German opera, Christopher W. Gluck’s legendary Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). It is absolutely a highlight of the season. As the only Baroque opera performed this season, Orfeo provides frequent opera-goers with a pleasant and simple sound for their ears, distinct from the rich and heavy instrumentations of Verdi and Puccini’s operas. 

The opera is composed for three main roles: Orfeo (countertenor), Euridice (soprano), and Amour (love, soprano). There are many defining and unique features of this opera, as Gluck breaks many traditional Baroque opera rules, such as the usage of recitativo—an ordinary speech sung by a character with very minimal accompaniment that serves as a piece of dialogue rather than an expressive aria. Gluck transforms the traditionally dry form of recitativo into a more ornate one accompanied by the entire orchestra rather than just a harpsichord. This was rather revolutionary at the time.

The story of Orfeo ed Euridice comes from the Ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The protagonist, Orpheus (or Orfeo), is the most talented poet and musician in the world. He decides to tread into Hades’s realm, the underworld, to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, from the realm of the dead. His song moves Hades, who grants Orpheus the soul of his wife with one condition: he cannot look back at Eurydice until both have stepped into the overworld. Tragically, he looks back, losing his wife again.

Gluck added his own twists to the story, transforming it into a love story with a happy ending. He opens the opera with an overture in C major, a glorious and exciting beginning that is filled with marching percussion and joyous cries from trumpets and oboes. Yet, this intro is then immediately followed by a more tragic chorale in C minor, full of agony and anguish, which begins Act I. The choir members act as nymphs and shepherds who are followers of Orfeo and are expressing their lament for Euridice’s death, while Orfeo lies aside in distress and periodically repeats the name of Euridice.

The Met Opera’s reimagining of this particular scene separates the actors and the singers. Choir members, each dressed differently, remain in two movable structures that each contain three balconies, while the shepherds and nymphs are replaced by ballet dancers who elegantly dance to the somber music. 

Orfeo’s mournful cries appear to have moved love itself. Gluck inserts a new character, Amour, who decides to help Orfeo get his wife back. However, she warns Orfeo not to look back to Euridice.

Orfeo ultimately finds Euridice in the Underworld during Act II, and Act III begins with a recitativo between Orfeo and Euridice while they are leaving the Underworld. Euridice begs Orfeo to look at her, while Orfeo refuses and asks her to stay silent. They then sing a duet, as Euridice refuses to leave with Orfeo until he looks at her while Orfeo desperately begs her to listen to him; this part marks the climax of the opera as both characters passionately and emotionally yell at each other, hoping to get what they asked for. Euridice then sings a solo aria, expressing her sorrow and torment from her lover ignoring her request. Ultimately, Orfeo gives in to her demand as Euridice pretends to faint and looks back. Euridice immediately dies again.

Yet, as Orfeo panics and regrets his decision greatly, Amour appears again to reassure him. With her magic, she brings Euridice back again. The couple returns to the overworld and celebrates the triumph over death with the shepherds and nymphs.

Gluck’s choice of a triumphant overture and a happy ending was not of his own will: the opera was written for the occasion of an Austrian emperor’s name day, thus the court officials ordered him to modify the opera in such fashion, which Gluck privately resented. Nonetheless, despite the lack of a tragic ending, Gluck’s Orfeo serves as a timeless masterpiece that surpasses almost all other operas with the same title.

The Met’s staging of this opera is minimalistic but nonetheless creative and impressive. The modern approach to the sets and costumes might offend many fans who insist on a more fair and traditional representation of the original story, but it is truly innovative in its vision. The costumes designed for the chorus members each represent a historical figure, or “witnesses from history,” as the program description calls them. “Each of them… a recognizable historic figure—from Josephine Baker to George Washington to Maria Callas. Even Gluck himself is represented… the chorus illustrates the universality and timeless allure of the Orpheus myth.” Director Mark Morris also comments on the dance elements of the production, which is very original and imaginative (although confusing at times) in its concept: “I wanted it to be a little ambiguous… so that the union of chorus and dancers feels inevitable and inseparable.”

The soloists all gave a superb performance filled with emotion and nuances. Soprano Elena Villalón, in her acting of Amour, beautifully demonstrated the playfulness of love as many audiences laughed out loud during her appearance and acting. Ying Fang, who played Euridice, also moved many audience members with her voice when pleading with Orfeo. And finally, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, a celebrated star in the opera community, gave an impressive performance that masterfully highlighted Orfeo’s torments and misery throughout many scenes of the opera.

The Met Opera transformed Gluck’s timeless masterpiece into something much more abstract and different from what Gluck had in mind. In addition to the sublime music performed by the singers and the orchestra, the symbolic and modern aspects, including the dances and the costumes, are absolutely worthwhile and a highlight of the performance. It is certainly a production worth revisiting the next time it appears in an opera season.