Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Orpheo Ed Euridice

Gluck and his music

A love that is so strong it defeats even death is the core idea of the Greek legend, Orpheus and Eurydice on which Gluck based his opera. So powerful is this idea, that it has been the subject of 60 operas, thirty written in the 17th and 18th century as well as plays and movies. Monteverdi's Orfeo is one of history's first operas, which premiered in 1607. The most enduring Orfeo ed Euridice, however, was by Christoph Willibald Gluck with libretto by Ranieri de 'Calzabigi which premiered in Vienna's Burgtheater October 5, 1762.

Orpheo and the Furies

The legend of Orpheo is referenced in Greek literature and philosophy from 500 years before Christ. It tells of a god with a voice so sweet, it could calm beasts and turn men away from war. Euridice, a wood nymph fell in love with and married Orpheus. Trying to escape the attentions of Aristaeus, one of Apollo's sons, she was fatally bitten by a snake.

Orpheo rescuing Euridice

Orpheus mourns Euridice with a song so heartbreaking the gods allow him to bring her from the underworld on condition that he will not lay eyes on her or explain this journey to her until they are above ground. As the journey continues, Euridice begs Orpheo to explain to her what is happening and to look at her to assure her she is still worthy of him, and finally, he can resist no longer, turns to her and so doing looses her eternally to death. That is, until love enters.

Traditional look, Orfeo leading Euridice

Gluck influenced Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner and many others and is recognized for blending the best aspects of Italian, French, and German musical traditions. Orfeo ed Euridice was known as the first of Gluck's 'reform operas'. Recognized as the doyen of Viennese composers, he was the man who had carried through important reforms to the art of opera. His aim was to make the music serve the poetry He emphasized a simple plot, based on straightforward human emotions, which could appeal to an audience as the complicated stories used in opera seria with their intrigues, disguises and subplots, could not. His historic importance rests on his establishment of a new equilibrium between music and drama, and his greatness on the power and clarity with which he projected that vision; he dissolved the drama in music instead of merely illustrating it.

Current look, Orfeo leading Euridice

At the time of the opera premiere, Gluck was 48. His theatrical career was long and varied. He had lived in Bavaria, Bohemia, Vienna and Milan. He composed prolifically for the dance. Orfeo ed Euridice was produced for the Emperor Franz's name day. It was modest in length, had three principal roles, a severe classical setting and the large-scale use of chorus.

Euridice emerges, Euridice enticing Orfeo to look at her

The role of Orfeo, written for castrato, is often sung today by countertenor, mezzo-soprano, or contralto and a version for high tenor exists. Lyric's new Orfeo is American countertenor David Daniels. The New York Times says he is 'the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps, the best ever'. Daniels was a basketball player through high school and portrays the virile Orpheus, whose voice could pacify wild beasts and draw stones to listen. His voice is pure, strong and warm and surprising. Initially one wonders who is singing, it is so high. He was a boy soprano who performed so steadily that he never lost the ability to produce that high pure sound. He decided to pursue countertenor roles about 12 years ago. The association of a high voice with femininity is so strong that some audiences experience a wave of gender confusion. I did initially. The part is very demanding because it is 90 per cent of the opera.

Love overcomes all

The role of Euridice is played by Isabel Bayrakdarian. It is a hard part, Isabel believes, because she doesn't appear until the third act. Since the role isn't built from the beginning, she wonders if the audience will find her worth all that Orpheus has been through. She had a difficult career choice to make between biomedical engineering, in which she holds an honors degree, and opera at which she excels.

Stage Director Robert Carsen presents a starkly powerful new production. He says 'This opera focuses entirely on the power of love (and its ability through music) to penetrate the mystery of death and even bring the dead back to life. These are the essential, eternal, unsolvable mysteries of life.' Tobias Hoheisel, set and costume designer, says 'The Underworld and Elysium are more worlds that exist within Orfeo's imagination' where nature is reduced to stone, air, water, and fire.' Peter Van Praet, lighting designer, says, 'We searched for ways to achieve a brightness in Elysium along with the darkness of Hades. Orfeo's dialogue with Euridice is quite shadowy; he can't look back at her, and the light is' to give the impression of the darkness behind them'.

The village rejoices in the reunion of Orfeo and Euridice

Pat, an avid opera attendee and a dancer, expressed her enthusiasm for this production, stating that her favorite parts of the opera included its length, the choreographed use of the arms of the Furies, and the wonderful lighting. I found the stark set powerful and somehow enveloping. The blending of voices was exquisite and the emotions so heightened that ninety minutes was totally satisfying.

There are three more opportunities to see this powerful, beautiful opera by contacting The Lyric Opera of Chicago at 312-332-2244X5600 or

Lyric Opera photos by Robert Kusel and Dan Rest

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