Gluck & The Reform Opera, Orfeo ed Euridice
Gluck’s most popular opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, was a revolt against the opera seria style so common in early baroque opera.
What was Opera Seria you ask? Well, prior to Gluck’s Orfeo, the artistic emphasis in baroque opera was placed primarily on the solo voice. The Da Capo aria was king, with the musical structure designed to show off the artistic virtuosity of the soloist. Da Capo translates literally as ‘from the head’. Da Capo arias are in ternary form, meaning they have an A section, followed by a contrasting B section and finally, the original A section is repeated, this time with embellishments and adornments improvised by the singer, emphasising the text. The constraints of the structure meant that by the mid 1700s baroque opera had gone a little stale. Gluck lamented the emphasis on the virtuosity of the voice over the drama of the story and was determined to do something about it.
Gluck playing his clavichord (1775), portrait by Joseph Duplessis
First performed in 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice sought to explore a more emotional connection between the performer and the audience, portraying deeper, three dimensional characters, moving away from the self-contained recitative and da capo aria structure and placing the drama of the story front and centre of the work. Gluck’s new approach engaged the orchestra throughout allowing music, song and dance to hold a more equal footing in the expression of the work. He felt that the fussiness of opera seria’s overly embellished da capo arias detracted from the overall effect of the drama and he strived to achieve what he called a ‘noble simplicity’ in his music.
Illustration from a 1764 edition of the score
The operatic approach was so strikingly different to everything else that was going on at the time that it became known as ‘reform opera’ and the premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice has been noted as one of the most important operatic events of the 18th century.
Hear this revolutionary work for yourself at the Galway International Arts Festival from the 23rd – 29th July. Tickets on sale now.