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The Fate of Orpheus on the Operatic Stage: Death and Transfiguration

From: Syllecta Classica
Volume 23 (2012)
pp. 51-75 | 10.1353/syl.2013.0004

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Although not a subject of Greek tragedy, the story of the ill-fated love of Orpheus and Eurydice is, in the usual telling, of the kind we commonly call tragic. Here in outline is the tale as it came down to the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, and ultimately to us, thanks largely to its retelling in Vergil (Georgics 4.453–527) and Ovid (Metamorphoses 10.1–105, 11.1–81). Eurydice, Orpheus’ beloved, was fleeing the unwanted advances of Aristaeus when a snake bit her and she died. Orpheus could not be consoled and finally resolved to enter the underworld himself and plead with the gods below for her release from the bonds of death. He charmed everyone, from Charon the ferryman, to the monsters of Hades, to the very gods of the world below. Indeed, his song and the music of his lyre so enchanted Plutus and Persephone that they allowed him to take Eurydice from the land of the dead to the light above, but on one condition: that he not look back on her until they had left the underworld. Driven by a mixture of motives, Orpheus broke this pact. In Vergil, “a sudden madness seized the incautious lover” (subita incautum dementia cepit amantem, 4.487) and, overcome by his emotions, he became forgetful (immemor, heu! victusque animi, 4.490). In Ovid, Orpheus fears that Eurydice has disappeared and is passionately eager to see her (ne deficeret metuens avidusque videndi, 10.56). As soon as Orpheus looked back, Eurydice had to return to the world below. Orpheus tried to reclaim her but this time was rebuffed, and so he went back to the world of the living without her. Thereafter, faithful to the memory of his beloved, he rejected the love of any other women. In Ovid’s version, indeed, Orpheus’ spurning of women led him to become the “inventor” of pederasty (10.83–5). A group of Bacchants whose advances he refused attacked him and tore him limb from limb.

At one level, it is not hard to see why this tale looms so large in the early history of opera, and specifically why it had a special appeal to a group of musicians, poets, and scholars in Florence known as the Camerata, who were engaged in inventing a new art form, opera, around the year 1600. Opera was, among many other things, an attempt to reinvent a form of music that had, as Renaissance scholars knew from their reading of Plato and other ancient authors, an extraordinary effect on the hearer. From this point of view, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, as a demonstration of the power of music even over death itself, seems almost predestined to have a place of honor in the history of opera. The harrowing of hell, a feat Heracles accomplished by force and Odysseus by magic, Orpheus achieves through art. Thus, the special quality of the myth as an operatic subject is its reflexivity, its probing of the power and limits of music itself. The importance of the Orpheus myth in the early history of opera suggests that it was construed as an analogue for the efforts of the creators of opera to devise a newer and more powerful form of musical expression — just as the hero transforms his grief into musical expression powerful enough to conquer hell and bring his beloved back to the world above.1

One aspect of the myth, however, is problematic for early opera: Orpheus, for all the power of his love and his song, finally fails. Indeed, the myth as recounted by Vergil and Ovid insists on double failure — the second death of Eurydice caused by Orpheus’ premature gaze, and his own death and dismemberment. As we shall see, both failures, but especially the tragic fate of Orpheus himself, constitute the source of continued discomfort for operatic versions, and that discomfort in turn leads to a series of fascinating innovations and variations.

The first opera to survive deals with the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Its libretto, by the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, was given two musical settings by two of the leading composers of the day, Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini...

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