Love is Hell: Orpheus Endures as Favorite Opera Subject

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It’s no wonder that opera composers have turned time and again to the saga of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, after all, was a bard whose song overcame death itself, moving the gods of the underworld to restore his wife to life.

But the legend has a darker side that makes it a fraught point of departure for opera. The gods order Orpheus not to look back at Eurydice until they reach the world above. In Virgil’s telling, Orpheus, overcome by furor (untamed passion), whirls around, loses his wife forever, and later dies dismembered by crazed Bacchantes.

What’s more, according artistic theories in vogue around the time of opera’s emergence, the amorous furor that undoes Orpheus and the Bacchantes’ destructive frenzy are both akin to the “divine madness” that begets music and poetry.

Understandably, operatic treatments of the Orpheus legend have varied greatly across the centuries. A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum and the world premiere of a work for soprano and orchestra by Kate Soper remind us of the abiding importance of the Orpheus myth for musicians.

In 1600, the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri opted for a happy ending when they wrote Euridice for festivities in Florence marking the marriage of Maria de’ Medici and Henri IV of France. Euridice is believed to be the earliest opera to have survived with all its music, and the first edition of the score is on view at the Morgan in “Treasures from the Vault,” which runs through May 5, 2013. The show is a feast for opera lovers, with documents in the hands of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini, along with the autograph score of a Beethoven violin sonata, illuminated texts, letters by Machiavelli and Tolkien, and other remarkable objects.

Like many early printed books, the Euridice first edition looks something like a manuscript from a prior age, with elaborately wrought initials and the diamond-shaped notes once used to transcribe plainchant. The prologue of Euridice hints at the disquieting aspects of the myth in its canonical form. The muse Tragedy announces that she is setting aside her “sad buskins and gloomy attire” in order to “rouse sweeter feelings.” In this opera, Orpheus’s “bel canto” conquers all: there is no second death, the lovers are reunited and the drama ends with choruses in praise of the triumphant bard.

Some Orpheus operas do follow Virgil and Ovid. The first version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) probably closed with Orpheus’s death, as had Agnolo Poliziano’s La fabula di Orfeo (1480), a play that was partly sung and may have been a precursor to opera. Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (1791), lately championed by Cecilia Bartoli, concludes with Orpheus slain. But Monteverdi and his librettist Alessandro Striggio also crafted a happy ending of sorts, with Orpheus alongside his father Apollo contemplating the lost Eurydice in the undying beauty of the sun and stars. When the curtain falls on Gluck and Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Orpheus has been admonished to temper his furor and Eurydice lives again.

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists dozens of Orpheus operas from the turn of the 17th century down to the present day. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (1986) is a gripping postmodern take on the myth. It presents multiple versions of the story, some unfolding simultaneously, and is bound up with problems of time, which sometimes flows backwards or elapses in dreams.

A Compelling Addition to the Orpheus Canon

Time is also at the heart of Kate Soper’s now is forever: I. Orpheus and Eurydice, which had its world premiere at Zankel Hall last week, performed by Soper and the American Composers Orchestra under George Manahan. The first of three settings of Jorie Graham poems about Orpheus from the collection The End of Beauty (1987), now is forever stretches and splinters the moment when the bard turns to look back at his wife.

In many earlier treatments of the myth, Eurydice is silent (or nearly so), arguably little more than a pawn in the contest between Orpheus and the gods or a pretext for his poetry and song. In Soper’s work, by contrast, the story is told in music composed and sung by a woman based on a poem also written by a woman. The verse shifts between the perspectives of Orpheus and Eurydice and also, like many of Graham’s poems, includes a blank: “the mind / looking into that which sets the ______ in / motion.” Soper filled it with a wordless vocal flourish; what (or whether) it might denote is left for readers and listeners to work out.

As a singer, Soper has a slender, girlish sound, and she was sometimes hard to hear over a roiling orchestra of some forty players. Her score calls for humming, dips into the lowest depths of the soprano voice, lyrical flights, and Sprechstimme; her orchestral writing ranges from icy glissandos to dense, many-hued explosions of sound. Superbly played by the ACO, the concert also included music by Zhou Long, Kyle Blaha, and Lukas Foss—his Time Cycle, sung with razor-sharp smarts and vocal glamour by Jennifer Zetlan. Who knows, perhaps she will take on future installments of Soper’s now is forever, a compelling addition to the Orpheus canon.

The philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno once wrote that “all opera is Orpheus.” But the bard also haunts popular music, including “Memphis Skyline” from the album "Want Two" (2004) by the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. The song is about another musician, Jeff Buckley, who drowned at age 30 in Tennessee’s Wolf River. (Buckley’s recordings include an otherworldly rendition of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol.”)

Wainwright evokes Hades and artistic rivalry and Ophelia’s watery demise singing “snatches of old lauds.” He assumes the role of Orpheus himself (“my harp I have strung”) and unfurls billows of rippling notes to suggest death in a river’s depths. Most poignant of all, he reverses the gods’ command to Orpheus when he urges Buckley to “turn back” and “stay under the Memphis skyline.” Like his plea for “Southern furies” to “turn back the wheels of time,” the entreaty is futile, and death and ruin prevail. But as in Virgil and Ovid’s tellings of the Orpheus myth and the many operas they have inspired, the song and its beauties linger even as the singer slips away.

Weigh in: What's your favorite take on the Orpheus myth? Leave your comments below.


Photos: 1) Jacopo Peri's 'Euridice' 2) Kate Soper (Liz Linder) 3) Rufus Wainwright (Alex Lake)