Ancient Story, Cutting Edge Opera: Gluck's 'Orphée et Eurydice'

The opera has three acts, and aside from the ending it sticks fairly close to the ancient, Orpheus myth. As ACT ONE opens, Orpheus is grieving at the tomb of his wife, Eurydice -- who according to the legend was killed by a poisonous snake. Nymphs and shepherds sing a mournful chorus, and Orpheus voices his own grief in a powerfully expressive aria.

Orpheus makes a bold decision: He'll try to bring Eurydice back from the dead. Before long he gets his chance when Love appears on the scene, as the character Amour. Amour sympathizes with Orpheus, and decides to help him with his dangerous attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld. But there's one catch. Orpheus must promise that as he's bringing Eurydice home, he won't look at her. What's more, if she wonders what's going on, he's forbidden from telling her about his promise. After thinking it over, Orpheus agrees to the terms.

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

Playing his lute and singing, Orpheus manages to calm both Cerberus and the Furies, and he arrives in Elysium, where Eurydice is brought to him. He's now free to take her home, but remember: He's forbidden from looking at her in the process. So, with his eyes averted, Orpheus takes her hand and leads her away.

ACT THREE opens as Orpheus and Eurydice are making their way home, and you might think they'd both be deliriously happy. But instead, Eurydice is becoming annoyed. For reasons she can't fathom, Orpheus refuses to look at her. Naturally, she wants to know why. Orpheus won't tell her. 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.

Orpheus had been determined to keep the promise he made to Amour. But Eurydice's obvious distress is too much for him. He breaks down, and turns to look at his wife. And Eurydice dies again. Orpheus is right back where he was when the opera began: alone, and grief stricken. He sings the heartbreaking aria “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice" -- "I have lost my Eurydice."

Then, as Orpheus reaches his lowest moment and prepares to stab himself, Amour appears once again. And this is where the 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, Amour prevents Orpheus from killing himself, then brings Eurydice back to life -- and the opera ends with a joyful dance and chorus.