Ancient Story, Cutting Edge Opera: Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridice'

Gluck's opera is in three acts, and sticks fairly close to the ancient myth -- except for the ending. As ACT ONE opens, Orfeo is grieving at the tomb of his wife, Euridice. She was killed, according to the legend, by a poisonous snake. Nymphs and shepherds sing a mournful chorus, and Orfeo voices his grief in a powerfully expressive aria.

Defying fate, Orfeo decides to bring Euridice back from the dead, and before long he gets his chance -- when Love appears on the scene, as the character Amor. Amor sympathizes with Orfeo, and agrees to assist in his dangerous attempt to rescue Euridice from the underworld. But there's one catch. Orfeo must promise that as he's bringing Euridice home, he won't look at her. And if she wonders what's going on, he's forbidden from telling her why. After thinking it over, Orfeo agrees to the terms.

In ACT TWO, he finds out exactly what stands in his way. First, there's a terrifying chorus of Furies, warning him about even more threats ahead. At the gates of Hades, he also confronts the hellish, three-headed watchdog Cerberus.

Orfeo, by playing his lute and singing, manages to calm both Cerberus and the Furies, and he arrives in Elysium, where Euridice is brought to him. He's now free to take her home, mindful of his pledge: He's forbidden from looking at her. So, with his eyes averted, Orfeo takes her hand and leads Euridice away.

At this point, you'd think they'd both be deliriously happy. Euridice had been dead, after all! But instead, when ACT THREE begins, Euridice is more than a little annoyed. Orfeo has resisted temptation and stubbornly refuses to look at her. Naturally, she wants to know the reason for this seemingly unfeeling behavior. Orfeo refuses to explain. Finally, she decides that the human world must have passed her by while she was gone, and that death might have been better all along.

Before too long, it's all too much for Orfeo. He breaks down, and turns to look at his wife. Euridice immediately dies again, and Orfeo is right back where he was when the opera began: alone, and griefstricken. He sings the heartbreaking aria "Che farò senza Euridice?" -- "What shall I do without Euridice?"

Then, as Orfeo reaches his lowest moment and prepares to stab himself, Amor returns to the scene. At this point, Gluck's opera departs from the original Orpheus myth -- which ends with Orpheus dead and dismembered, at the hands of the vengeful Bacchantes. In Gluck's version of the story, Amor prevents Orfeo from killing himself, then brings Euridice back to life, and the opera ends with a joyful dance and chorus.