Orpheus and Eurydice

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by Christoph Willibald Gluck

Friday, April 8 – 7:30 PM

Saturday, April 9 – 7:30 PM

Presented at DeVos Center for Arts and Worship

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A legendary musician loses his love. Overcome with intolerable grief, he ventures to the depths of hell on a rescue mission to save her. Based on the classical Greek mythology of Orpheus, this baroque opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck was so influential in its style that it set the stage for several subsequent operas. In this age-old story set to modern staging and dance, will the hero save the heroine?

Conducted and Directed by Timothy Nelson

Opera Grand Rapids Chorus | Grand Rapids Symphony | Hope College H2 Dance Company

Run time: 2 hours

 

Tickets

The Box Office is now closed for Friday night’s performance. Tickets will be available for purchase at the door.

DeVos Center for Arts and Worship

DeVos Center for Arts and Worship

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Meet the Director

Timothy Nelson

Timothy Nelson, stage director

Stage Director Timothy Nelson has directed over 70 productions of opera and theater throughout the United States and Europe. The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times have both referred to Nelson as “The Future of Opera.” He recently directed the Nederlandse Reiopera’s highy acclaimed production of Le Pecheurs de Perles and the Barbican’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Upcoming projects include San Giovanni Battista for Gotham Chamber Opera in New York City, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria for the Academy of Ancient Music and Barbican Theatre in London, Ballo in Maschera for the Iford Arts Festival, and The Lighthouse for the Nationale Reisopera and Armel Opera Festival Budapest. More.

Meet the Cast

Zach Finkelstein

Zach Finkelstein, Orpheus

American-Canadian Zach Finkelstein has quickly established himself as a leading tenor soloist in North America and abroad, from Seattle’s Benaroya Hall to New York’s Lincoln Center to London’s Sadler’s Wells to the National Arts Center in Beijing, China.

Recently hailed by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times as a “compelling tenor,” he made his New York City Opera debut in April 2013 as Mambre in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, a production dubbed by Tommasini as one of the Top 10 classical events of 2013. Last season, Zach sang the role of Damon “with sensitivity and grace” (Boston Classical Review) in Acis and Galatea, performances conducted by Nicholas McGegan leading Philharmonia Baroque in Berkeley, CA as well as with the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, MA. More.

Clara Rottsolk, Eurydice

“Pure and shining” (Cleveland Plain Dealer) soprano Clara Rottsolk has been lauded by The New York Times for her “clear, appealing voice and expressive conviction” and by The Philadelphia Inquirer for the “opulent tone [with which] every phrase has such a communicative emotional presence.” In a repertoire extending from the Renaissance to the contemporary, her solo appearances with orchestras and chamber ensembles have taken her across the United States, the Middle East, Japan and South America. She specializes in historically informed performance practice, singing with ensembles including American Bach Soloists, Tempesta di Mare, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Les Délices, Pacific MusicWorks, St. Thomas Church 5th Avenue, Virginia Symphony, Atlanta Baroque, Magnificat Baroque, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, Piffaro—The Renaissance Wind Band, Colorado Bach Ensemble, Trinity Wall Street Choir, Seraphic Fire, New Mexico Symphonic Chorus, ARTEK, and the Masterwork Chorus under the direction of conductors including Joshua Rifkin, Bruno Weil, Paul Goodwin, Jeffrey Thomas, John Scott, David Effron, and Andrew Megill. More.

Chelsea Morris Shephard, Amour

Chelsea Morris Shephard, soprano, gave an “exquisite” NYC recital debut this past spring with New York Festival of Song, for which she was also praised for her “beautiful, lyric instrument” and “flawless legato” (Opera News). Operatic roles include Beth in Adamo’s Little Women (Madison Opera), Mozart’s Pamina, Susanna and Despina (Candid Concert Opera), the wicked stepsister Clorinda in La Cenerentola (Green Mountain Opera Festival), and leading roles with Chicago’s only dedicated Baroque opera: Haymarket Opera Company (for which she was praised for her  “luscious soprano voice” by John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune). Also in Chicago, Ms. Morris Shephard performed on stage with Lyric Opera of Chicago as a Finalist for the Ryan Opera Center (2015) and as an Actress  in their mainstage production of Strauss’s Elektra (2013), directed by David McVicar. As a 2014-2015 Studio Artist with Madison Opera, Ms. Morris Shephard covered Johanna/Sweeney Todd and Marzelline/Fidelio, and sang Berta/Il Barbiere di Siviglia in April 2015, all under the baton of Maestro John DeMain. More.

Casting, repertoire and event details are subject to change without notice or refunds, but are specified in good faith as accurate at the time of publication.

Synopsis

Overture

ACT I
Eurydice’s death
Orpheus and the community mourn the sudden death of Eurydice. Left alone, Orpheus appeals to nature for solace to no avail. His pleas are met only by echoes, empty responses. He cries out to the heavens for the chance to turn back time, to take her back from their clutches. Amour, the personification of love, tells Orpheus that the firmament is moved by his despair and will allow him to reclaim his wife with the condition he does not look at her or tell her the reason for his coldness until their return. Combating his fear, Orpheus searches for hope in the darkness.

ACT II
Hades
Orpheus has descended to the brink of death, where the Furies attempt to stop him from continuing on his journey. He sings of his pain and pleads to them for mercy. Gradually, the song of his pain lends them respite from their suffering, and they recede, leaving the path to the world beyond open to Orpheus’ steps.

INTERMISSION

Elysian fields
Orpheus finds himself on a vast plain, where spirits live in perfect harmony in sublime beauty. He takes delight in the peace of this eternal place but declares that only the sight of Eurydice can ease his grief. The spirits usher forth Eurydice, and she and Orpheus begin the journey back to the mortal.

ACT III
The journey back

Orpheus leads Eurydice back to the upper world. As they journey, she becomes anxious and pleads with Orpheus to look at her, that just one glance could bring her comfort. He exhorts his wife to have faith, to hope and to continue on the path, but suffering in agony, she can hardly go any further. Orpheus defies the gods’ command to release Eurydice from her pain and fatally turns one last time to gaze into her eyes. At peace she dies again, and Orpheus, transfigured, returns to his homeland alone. Orpheus wishes for his own death, and upon this, Amour appears to him once more, telling him that his sacrifice is the true depth of love’s mystery.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice

In the history of opera, there are more than 70 based on the Orpheus myth, not counting at least a dozen comic renditions. It’s not surprising; after all, Orpheus has always been thought the god of music. Indeed, in 1600 the Orpheus myth was the subject of the first surviving opera ever performed. In the Florentine Camerata’s efforts to re-create Greek drama (which actually led to the “invention” of opera), two of its members—Ottavio Rinuccini and Jacopo Peri—wrote and composed Orfeo to celebrate the wedding of France’s Henry IV to Maria de’ Medici. Wisely, for this occasion they provided a happy ending.

The Orpheus myth, widely known since Greco-Roman times, has always had an unhappy ending. Orpheus fails to bring Eurydice back from Hades because he is unable to heed Apollo’s warning: “Lead her out without looking back!” Unable to resist Eurydice’s pleas, Orpheus turns to look at her, and she is lost to him and life forever. But almost all Orpheus operas have a happy ending, as did that first one.

When Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) undertook his Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), he was 35th in line, along with such famous predecessors as Monteverdi, Lully and Telemann. This version of Orfeo was composed for the Vienna Court Opera and was sung in Italian, as were all his operas to that point. An instant success, it was taken up throughout the opera world. A dozen years later, Gluck decided to make his mark in Paris, where opera fortunes had fallen since the days of Lully and Rameau. Fortunately, he also had the support of his former music student, Dauphine Marie Antoinette, who also was anxious to improve French opera. Gluck’s first Paris success was Iphigénie en Aulide (1774). Then he turned his attention to reworking Orfeo ed Euridice with a French libretto, plus additional music and dances. But most importantly, he changed the Orpheus from castrato-contralto to male-tenor, a change to satisfy French audiences that never took to the “unnatural” male altos and contraltos.

The plot of Orphée et Eurydice (1774) is as uncomplicated as an opera plot can be. Played out in a series of tableaux, the first takes place when the curtain rises on Orpheus and his shepherd friends, lamenting Eurydice’s recent death. Orpheus’ repeated cries for his beloved ultimately bring Amor, god of love, from the heavens. He takes pity on Orpheus, instructing him to take his lyre and seek Eurydice in the underworld. But Amor cautions him not to look back at her as he guides her out, or she will be lost forever.

The second act opens before the gates of Hades, guarded by the Furies, who deny Orpheus entrance. But eventually his singing calms their fury, and they open the gates to the Elysian Fields. There, he finds serene happiness, beautifully portrayed in the famous “Ballet of the Happy Spirits.” Eurydice appears, led by a train of Blessed Spirits, moving in dreamlike fashion. Finally, Orpheus takes Eurydice’s hand and leads her off, careful not to look at her, as they make their way back to life.

In the third act, high drama breaks out as Eurydice repeatedly asks Orpheus what is wrong: Why will he not look at her? Unable to withstand her pleadings, Orpheus looks back, embracing Eurydice as she falls dead in his arms. At this point, we hear Gluck’s most famous aria—best known in its Italian configuration, “Che faro senza Euridice?”—as Orpheus laments, “What will I do without my Eurydice?” His song is so moving, Amor, our deus ex machina, reappears to restore Eurydice to life, and the lovers return to earth. There, everyone rejoices in happiness as the curtain falls.

As noted above, this ending is inconsistent with the classic Orpheus myth, in which Eurydice stays dead, and years later, the distraught Orpheus is torn to shreds by the enraged Maenads because he refuses to honor their deity, Dionysus. There are yet other versions of Orpheus’ death, and they are always grotesque. But this one seems especially interesting because we wonder, where was his lyre when he needed it most?

-Gilbert R. Davis

 

About the Composer

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck was a German composer of Italian and French opera in the early classical period. After many years at the Habsburg court at Vienna, Gluck brought about the practical reform of opera’s dramaturgical practices that many intellectuals had been campaigning for over the years.

Fusing the traditions of Italian opera and the French national genre into a new synthesis, Gluck wrote eight operas for the Parisian stages. Gluck had long pondered the fundamental problem of form and content in opera. He thought both of the main Italian operatic genres – opera buffa and opera seria – had strayed too far from what opera should really be and seemed unnatural. Gluck wanted to return opera to its origins, focusing on human drama and passions and making words and music of equal importance.

Orfeo ed Euridice(Orpheus and Eurydice) 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. With a series of radical new works in the 1760s, he broke the stranglehold that Metastasian opera seria had enjoyed for much of the century. Gluck’s reforms, which began with Orfeo ed Euridice, have had significant influence throughout operatic history. Gluck’s ideals heavily influenced the popular works of Mozart, Wagner, and Weber. More.

 

Composition and Performance History

Orfeo ed Euridice(Orpheus and Eurydice) is an opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck based on the myth of Orpheus. 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 in Vienna on 5 October 1762. 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.

The opera was the first by Gluck showing signs of his ambition to reform opera seria. Self-contained arias and choruses make way for shorter pieces strung together to make larger structural units. The complexity of the storyline is greatly reduced by eliminating subplots. Gluck was influenced by the example of French tragédies en musique, particularly those of Rameau. Like them, the opera contains a large number of expressive dances, extensive use of the chorus and accompanied recitative. More.