Obsessions with Orpheus

The Orpheus myth has inspired countless adaptations in many different art forms over the millennia, but the mythical musician—and his doomed beloved—have a special place in the history of opera. In 1600, the composers Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini were hired to write a musical entertainment for the wedding of Maria de’ Medici and King Henry IV of France, which took place in the bride’s hometown of Florence, Italy. At the time, Florentine musicians and thinkers believed (falsely) that ancient Greek theater had been sung throughout, using a “heightened” form of speech. Hoping to recreate this ancient theatrical style, Peri and Caccini decided to compose an entire theatrical work for the wedding festivities using this style of speech-song, and they settled on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice—the ultimate story about the power of music—as their subject. The result, Euridice, which was performed with Peri himself singing the role of Orpheus, is the earliest surviving complete opera.

Throughout the Renaissance, composers from across Europe crafted musical settings of the Orpheus myth. These included works by Heinrich Schütz (German, 1585–1672), Matthew Locke (English, 1621/3–77), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (French, 1643–1704), and Claudio Monteverdi (Italian, 1567–1643), whose opera Orfeo (1607) is still performed regularly today. Many 18th- and 19th-century composers were also inspired by the myth; one of the most famous operas of this period is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762). More recent adaptations include two chamber operas by American and British composers: Philip Glass’s Orphée (1993) and Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (2010).

Just like Aucoin and Ruhl did in Eurydice, many artists have altered the myth to offer their own take on Orpheus’s adventures. Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858/1874) satirizes the lavish world of the Parisian bourgeoisie under Napoleon III’s reign, portraying Orpheus and Eurydice as a mismatched couple who are quite happy to be separated by death. This operetta features the famous “can-can” or “galop infernal” (“infernal gallop”), which celebrates the never-ending party in the Underworld. Another adaptation, the Tony Award–winning musical Hadestown (2006), reinterprets the story in a 21st-century context, dealing with themes of poverty and worker exploitation. And in a change of perspective that echoes Ruhl’s play, British composer Jonathan Dove’s one-act opera L’Altra Euridice (The Other Eurydice, 2001) uses a mixture of Baroque and modern instruments and a solo baritone to retell the story from Hades’s point of view.

Critical Inquiry
If you were to tell the Orpheus story through any medium of your choice, which would you choose?