Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met
By Peter Clark
The Greek Orpheus myth has served as a subject for opera from the very beginning of the art form, with Monteverdi’s 1607 L’Orfeo claiming the distinction of being the world’s oldest surviving opera. Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, premiered in 1762 in Vienna, is the best known of all the musical versions and, until Handel’s operas began to be performed at the Met in the 1980s, was one of the very few pre-Mozart compositions in the company’s repertory.
While the official Met premiere of Orfeo ed Euridice was a single performance in German that took place on an 1885 tour, the opera’s first presentation at its New York home was in 1891, with the Ravogli sisters, Giulia and Sofia, in the title roles. The Ravoglis’ portrayals had garnered praise in London the previous year from such demanding critics as George Bernard Shaw, who proclaimed himself “infatuated” with Giulia and described in detail her “heart-searching pantomime, saturated with feeling.” By and large, critics on this side of the Atlantic concurred, but their interest focused more on the different versions of the opera and other musicological aspects. As a mezzo-soprano in the role of Orfeo, Giulia Ravogli followed the standard 19th-century practice of replacing the original male alto castrato with a female mezzo-soprano or contralto. Gluck’s 1774 revision of the opera for Paris, to a French text with a tenor Orphée, has never been performed at the Met. The 1891 Met performances were an Italian-language edition probably based on Hector Berlioz’s 1859 French version arranged for the star contralto Pauline Viardot.
The sets in 1891 were cobbled together using parts of previous productions of Carl Goldmark’s Merlin and Alberto Franchetti’s Asrael. The public’s interest in music history as entertainment may be reflected in the fact that Orfeo ed Euridice generally shared the bill with either Cavalleria Rusticana (in 1891–92), Pagliacci (in the 1893 revival), or Massenet’s La Navarraise (in 1895).
None other than Arturo Toscanini was an admirer of Gluck’s operas, and it was under his musical leadership that, in 1909, the Met first mounted an original new production of Orfeo ed Euridice. The conductor created his own musical version, replacing the bravura aria at the end of Act I with “Divinités du Styx” from Gluck’s Alceste, suppressing the overture altogether and adding a trio from another of the composer’s works in the last act. The sets were designed by noted French artist Paul Paquereau, eliciting the comment that this was “the most beautiful and artistic performance that Gluck’s masterpiece has had in this country,” from The New York Times critic.
The plush-voiced mezzo-soprano Louise Homer sang Orfeo, and the Wagnerian Johanna Gadski must have been an unusually heroic Euridice; both (pictured above) were admired by the critics. At the fourth performance, the eminent French contralto Marie Delna made her Met debut, but she seems to have had differences with Toscanini over tempos, resulting in some “train wrecks” in performance noted in the press. Feeling she had been unfairly judged, Delna returned to France, but when the Met toured to Paris in the summer of 1910, her fans clamorously booed Toscanini as he stepped to the podium at the opening performance of Aida. The evening’s Amneris, Louise Homer, seems to have quelled the protest at her entrance through the sheer power and beauty of her singing. Toscanini repeated his Orfeo in four more successive seasons, then the work was dropped from the repertory until a new production in 1936.
Dance is as important an element in an Orfeo performance as singing, though it had been secondary at the Metropolitan up until this time. Initiating his reign as General Manager in 1935, Edward Johnson engaged George Balanchine as the ballet master at the Met with the understanding that he would choreograph dance sequences for the repertory using his own troupe, the American Ballet. Balanchine, together with surrealist artist Pavel Tchelitchew, was given charge of the new Orfeo production in 1936 (pictured at the top of this page and above), for which they placed the singers in the orchestra pit and had dancers mime their parts on the stage. Though perhaps a logical solution to Orfeo’s heavy mixture of dance and song, this idea was not well received—“stylistically anomalous and frequently bordered on travesty,” as one critic put it.
Given only two performances, the Balanchine Orfeo was replaced a mere two years later with a new production in a more conventional vein directed by Herbert Graf, with sets by Harry Horner and choreography by Boris Romanoff. Conductor Artur Bodanzky and mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg (pictured above) as Orfeo were admired for their performances. The production received occasional revivals for the next 32 years, often with a notable conductor on the podium—Erich Leinsdorf replaced Bodanzky after his death in 1939, then Bruno Walter led performances a few years later, and finally Pierre Monteux conducted the 1955 revival. The popular mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens (pictured below) owned the role of Orfeo at the Met in the 1950s, with silvery-voiced Hilde Güden as her habitual Euridice.
In 1970, the Met entrusted another choreographer, Milko Šparemblek, with a new production of Orfeo designed by Rolf Gérard. Richard Bonynge conducted a stellar cast with the luscious voices of Grace Bumbry and Gabriella Tucci in the title roles. Two seasons later, one of the great bel canto singers of the century, Marilyn Horne, took the role of Orfeo in five performances conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras in his Met debut.
Orfeo ed Euridice was not heard at the Metropolitan Opera for the next 35 years until yet another choreographer, Mark Morris, directed and choreographed a new production in 2007 (pictured above) with sets designed by Allen Moyer and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. As Balanchine had done, Morris used his own company of dancers for the ballet sequences. He also emphasized the chorus—which plays a major part in the musical action—by placing them permanently on stage seated on mobile, tiered risers. Mizrahi costumed each chorus member as an historic personage focusing yet more attention on them. David Daniels was the first man and the first countertenor to sing the role of Orfeo at the Met, a trend that has taken root in much of the opera world since the countertenor voice type had been reintroduced as part of the early music movement. James Levine conducted as he did two seasons later when mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (pictured below) applied her richly-hued voice to the role of Orfeo. The opera returned most recently during the 2019–20 season, when Mark Wigglesworth paced mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as the title pair.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives