Richard Wigmore celebrates the first reform opera, 250 years old this month
When the Habsburg imperial family and their retinue took their places for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna’s old Burgtheater on October 5, 1762, they were doubtless expecting a gentle pastoral entertainment, crowned by the (in the mid-18th century) obligatory happy ending. The occasion – Emperor Francis I’s name-day – and the opera’s billing as an azione teatrale (literally ‘theatrical action’) promised as much. The imperial audience duly got their deus ex machina happy ending. But for two-and-a-half acts they experienced a work of startling originality and emotional power that integrated chorus, soloists and ballet in dramatic complexes, abandoned the formal da capo aria, and broke down the clear-cut division between recitative and aria.
Gluck’s librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi was a picaresque figure in the Da Ponte mould: an opportunistic adventurer and ‘a great lover of women’ (in Casanova’s expert judgement) who had fled Italy for Paris in 1750 following a trial for murder. He was also a cultivated man of letters, a disciple of Diderot and the French Enlightenment, and a passionate opponent of the artifices and excesses of Italian opera. His ideas chimed in perfectly with the composer’s. Calzabigi took the archetypal myth of Orpheus’s descent to Hades to rescue Euridice and pared it down to essentials; and Gluck’s music was correspondingly strong, direct and simple, shorn of rococo frills and fripperies. His watchwords were ‘beautiful simplicity’ and dramatic truth: no more pandering to the whims and vanities of over-indulged, over-paid star singers.
From the solemn opening chorus of mourning, through the elemental contrast between Stygian darkness and unearthly light in Act Two – which French writer Romain Rolland dubbed ‘the most moving act in all opera’ – to Orpheus’s famous climactic lament, ‘Che farò senza Euridice’, Gluck and Calzabigi created a drama of swift, shattering economy: a myth on the transcendent powers of music, and a milestone in operatic history.
Composer and librettist had carefully fashioned the title-role to the unique gifts of castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who in 1748, aged 20, had arrived in London ‘a wild and careless singer’ (Charles Burney’s words). He then blossomed under the joint tutelage of Handel and David Garrick; and by 1762 he was fêted throughout Europe for his expressive, naturalistic acting and a style of singing that put delicacy of nuance and subtlety of declamation above bravura histrionics.
Frustratingly, the sole review of the first performance fails to mention Guadagni, though we can infer that he impressed his Habsburg audience in a role that quickly became his calling card, not least in London. As Burney later reported, the castrato invariably drew applause for his ‘impassioned and exquisite manner of singing the simple and ballad-like air Che farò’. After noting that Orfeo ‘was received with extraordinary acclaim’, the (anonymous) critic of the Wienerisches Diarium devotes most of his review to Calzabigi’s contribution, with musical comment confined to a mere couple of sentences: ‘The music is by our famous Cav. Christoph Gluck, who has surpassed himself in it. Perfect harmony prevails throughout; characters and passions are clearly and sensitively expressed; the feelings of the listener are constantly stimulated by shrewdly judged changes of tempo and a good choice and variety of instruments’.
Although he was not in the habit of dangling recalcitrant prima donnas out of windows, à la Handel, Gluck was, to quote Burney, ‘a very dragon, of whom all are in fear’. The expressive demands of Orfeo threw up unprecedented challenges to the performers; and while there were no tantrums (by castrato standards, Guadagni was a paragon of courtesy and consideration), one unconfirmed report suggests that the composer required no fewer than 29 rehearsals before the premiere. Burney later recalled a conversation with the composer:
‘Gluck recounted to me the difficulties he had met with in disciplining the band, both of vocal and instrumental performers, at the rehearsals of Orfeo, which was the first of his operas that was truly dramatic...He is a great disciplinarian, and as formidable as Handel used to be, when at the head of a band; but he assured me, that he never found his troops mutinous, though he, on no account, suffered them to leave any part of their business, till it was well done, and frequently obliged them to repeat some of his manoeuvres 20 or 30 times.’
After its successful Viennese premiere, followed by four repeat performances in 1762, Orfeo was heard only fitfully in the Habsburg capital. It disappeared from view there altogether between 1781 and a centenary performance in 1862. In the meantime the opera had triumphed in France, and especially Paris, in its 1774 reworking as Orphée, with the title-role recast for a high tenor (the French deemed castratos an offence against nature). Pastiches of the Italian Orfeo, incorporating music from other operas, became hugely popular in London. The composer would doubtless have recoiled at such travesties. Yet it is fair to say that in one form or another, Gluck’s masterpiece of ‘beautiful simplicity’ was the earliest opera never to leave the European repertoire.