By Robert Croan
Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is all things to all people. Prior to the great Baroque revival of the mid-20th century, it was the oldest opera in standard repertory. Since its world premiere in Vienna in 1762, the iconic work has been revised, reworked and tampered with so many times that the work as performed from one opera house to another may bear only incidental resemblance to each other or to what the composer had in mind.
Florida Grand Opera’s production, which opens tonight with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and contralto Lindsay Ammann alternating in the title role, will return to the so-called original version, but even those performances will have significant differences.
Chicago-based contralto Ammann, who stepped into the title role at short notice when FGO’s second cast countertenor canceled, says, “It will be two insanely different shows. There’s a drastic contrast between us.”
She likes to point out that, with each singer adding ornaments of their own, “I’ll be singing lower notes than Anthony, to show off my chest voice to head voice specialty.”
For his part, Costanzo, a North Carolina-born singer who has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera and with the Glyndebourne Festival in England, writes in an email that one of the things he loves about singing the role “is the freedom it affords the singer.
“I like to explore a full dynamic range, and sometimes being extremely quiet in the huge space of an opera house can be even more effective than blaring loud and high notes,” he wrote. “I’m loving seeing what magical threads I can spin into the air of the theater.”
Gluck’s Orfeo is the simplest opera of them all (which doesn’t mean that it’s easy to perform – its exposed vocal lines and uncomplicated harmonies lay open every technical flaw), and its hit number, “Che faro senza Euridice” is generally agreed to be the most perfect and beautiful melody ever written.
Costanzo points out that the aria is a lament, but an unusual one.
“Many people think of sad music being in a minor key, but part of what’s so extraordinary about this aria is that it is in a major key. If you hear it out of context, it almost sounds sweet, but in fact at the height of the tragedy of this story, when the orchestra plays the introduction to the aria and this lyrical melody emerges, it is extremely moving,” he wrote. “I’ve always approached this aria in a tiered way, moving through the stages of griefs in different strophes, and I hope what we’ve been able to achieve musically here is deeply touching.”
Ammann finds the opera to be “an extreme challenge for me. Coming from the Romantic world, my thing is Wagner, Verdi, Slavic stuff. But since every major mezzo and contralto in history has tackled it, it’s an honor.”
She goes so far as to say: “I hate ‘Che faro’! The music sits badly for me, although it would probably have been better at the [lower] pitch used in Gluck’s time. I struggle with giving it the simplicity it deserves. You have to find the layers behind the simplicity.”
The ancient Greek legend of Orpheus was an obvious one for opera from the start. The protagonist is the greatest singer in the world, who charmed the Furies at the gates of the underworld into allowing him to bring his dead wife back to life. Only there’s a stipulation, and Orpheus fails the test. He’s not allowed to look at Euridice on the journey back to earth, and he succumbs to her pleadings. Euridice dies a second time, with various tragic or happy final outcomes, according to the version you follow.
Several of the earliest operas, composed around 1600 by Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini and then the great Claudio Monteverdi, were based on the Orpheus legend. There’s even Jacques Offenbach’s delightful 19th-century spoof, Orpheus in the Underworld, in which the protagonists have grown bored with each other and Orpheus only rescues her from Hades at the insistence of a character named Public Opinion.
At its premiere, in Vienna in 1762, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was an attempt to reform opera from the excesses of early 18th-century Italian opera seria. Italian opera had come to favor the singers, notably the castrati, star performers who dazzled audiences with elaborately ornamented arias that sacrificed verbal clarity for vocal display. For Gluck, music’s true purpose was “to give expression to the poetry and to strengthen the dramatic situations”: clear, syllabic setting of the words and easily remembered melodies with unencumbered chordal accompaniment.
Gluck composed his Orfeo for a celebrated alto castrato, Gaetano Guadagni. For a Paris production in 1774, he rewrote the opera for a tenor Orpheus, translating the Italian libretto into French and adding a considerable amount of new music. In 1859, Hector Berlioz adapted the Paris version as a trouser role for a famous female contralto, Pauline Viardot, transposing Orpheus’s music back into Gluck’s original lower keys.
Later in the 19th century, Berlioz’s score was in turn translated back into Italian, and this hybrid score (or some combination of several editions) became standard. Baritones as well took on the role, singing in the original keys but an octave lower. A major change took place in the mid 20th-century, however, with the rise of the modern countertenors, male falsettists (mostly altos) who could sing this and other castrato repertory the way it was written. Think of the powerful head voice of Four Seasons’ frontman Frankie Valli.
“In the 17th and 18th century, castrati were the rock stars.They were men who had been physically altered as boys in order to keep their high singing voice. By all accounts, they sang with the power of a fully developed body, even though the notes were in treble clef,” Costanzo wrote. “Composers from Monteverdi to Rossini wrote for the castrati, and while we don’t know what they sounded like, apart from an unrepresentative recording from the 20th century of the last castrato, we can surmise that they had a sort of otherworldly quality that had aspects of a male sound even though it was in a woman’s register.
“Countertenors can capture this same kind of vocal tight-rope act and perhaps evoke the same sense of wonder in audiences as they hear this high sound emerging from a male body,” he wrote.
Orfeo’s music is so sheerly beautiful that just about everyone wants to sing it. The classic recording of “Che faro” (and of the entire role) was by British contralto Kathleen Ferrier (check it out on YouTube). The range of possibilities has attracted great singers in every category: tenors Leopold Simoneau and Juan Diego Florez, countertenors David Daniels and Jochen Kowalsky, mezzo-sopranos Marilyn Horne and Stephanie Blythe, baritones Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerard Souzay, just to name a few.
Costanzo places himself in the tradition of David Daniels, whom he considers a mentor. Ammons says she’s been listening to a recording by Greek mezzo Agnes Baltsa.
“A lot of people are scared of Baroque opera because they think it will be boring, less romantic, less lush, less operatic,” Costanzo wrote. “But I think with this piece you see just how cathartic and how operatic the Baroque can be.”
Gluck’s Orfeo is fair game, and will likely remain so for generations of singers to come.
Orfeo ed Euridice opens at 7 tonight, followed by performances at 2 p.m. Sunday and three 8 p.m. performances on March 20, 23 and 24 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami. The last two performances are set for March 29 and March 31 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.