top of page

Orpheus, ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills. He became the patron of a religious movement based on sacred writings said to be his own.

Orpheus joined the expedition of the Argonauts, saving them from the music of the Sirens by playing his own, more powerful music. On his return, he married Eurydice, who was soon killed by a snakebite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus ventured himself to the land of the dead to attempt to bring Eurydice back to life. With his singing and playing he charmed the ferryman Charon and the dog Cerberus, guardians of the River Styx. His music and grief so moved Hades, king of the underworld, that Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice with him back to the world of life and light.

Hades set one condition, however: upon leaving the land of death, both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back. The couple climbed up toward the opening into the land of the living, and Orpheus, seeing the Sun again, turned back to share his delight with Eurydice. In that moment, she disappeared. 

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice 

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice 

Orpheus was the greatest human musician of Creek mythology. In fact, he was so great that a religion—Orphism - was founded, and Orpheus was worshiped as a god some twenty five hundred years ago. Naturally, therefore, his story has always been a logical one for opera composers. In fact, the oldest operatic score in existence is based on the story—Jacopo Peri's L'Euridice. It dates from 1600, and several more operas on the same subject were written soon after. Eighteenth - and nineteenth-century composers continued to deal with it, and so has the modernist Darius Milhaud.

But the only version often beard nowadays is Gluck's—Orfeo ed Euridice. It is also the oldest opera in the standard repertoire, dating from 1762. On October 5 of that year the composer conducted the world premiere in Vienna. The language was Italian, and the role of Orpheus was sung by Gaetano Guadagni, a castrato—that is, a male alto. When, later on, the opera was given in France, where castrati were not accepted on 
the stage, Gluck rewrote the part for a tenor. But in modern times, outside of France, the Italian version is usually used, and the role of Orpheus is sung by a contralto-a female contralto, of course.

Gluck and his librettist, Raniero da Calzabigi, omitted many details of the legendary story, and so there is not too much action on the stage. Instead, there is a good deal of choral singing (especially in Act I), and a good deal of ballet. On account of the lack of action the opera is well adapted for concert form and for phonograph records.


(Orfeo ed Euridice)


Opera in three acts by Christoph Willibald von Gluck
with libretto in Italian by Raniero da Calzabigi based on Greek mythology


Orpheus, a singer        -  Contralto (or Tenor)

Eurydice, his wife        -  Soprano

Amor, the god of love        -  Soprano

A happy Shade      -  Soprano

Time: Mythological antiquity

Places: Greece and Hades

First performance at Vienna, October 5, 1762


Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus 1475 - 1480
Jacopo del Sellaio




Orpheus has just lost his beautiful wife Euiydice, and the opera opens, after a rather cheerful overture, in the grotto before her tomb. First with a chorus of nymphs and shepherds, and later on alone, he bitterly mourns her death. Finally, he decides to win her back from the gods of the underworld by invading Hades armed only with tears, courage, and a lyre. But the gods have mercy on him. Amor, the little god of love (that is, Cupid), tells him that he may descend to the Inferno.

There he must play his lyre and sing sweetly, and the local officials will be moved to give her up. Only one condition is made: be must on no account look at Eurydice before he has led her safely back to earth. It is a condition that Orpheus knows he may find hard to fulfill; and he prays for help as drums suggest the thunder and lightning that mark the beginning of his dangerous journey.

 Orfeu i Eurídice -  Peter Paul Rubens


The second act takes us to the underworld—Hades—where Orpheus first wins over the Furies, or Eumenides, and then receives his bride, Eurydice, from the Blessed Spirits. The chorus of the Furies is dramatic and fearsome; but gradually, as Orpheus plays the lyre and sings, the Eumenides relent. It is extraordinarily simple music that paints this dramatic contrast, for the same rhythmical pattern is used throughout. At the close the Furies dance to a ballet that Gluck bad composed somdime earlier to describe Don Juan's descent into hell.

Then comes the very familiar Dance of the Blessed Spirits, with its eloquent flute solo. After Orpheus has departed with the Furies, Eurydice sings together with the Blessed Spirits of their quiet life in the Elysian fields. Then, when they in turn have departed, Orpheus comes in alone; and as he sings of the beauty of the sky and sun in this place (Che puro ciel, che chiaro sol!), the orchestra seems to play a hymn to the ddights of nature. Drawn by his singing, the Blessed dpmts return once more, bringing Eurydice with them; and as the act ends, Orpheus leads her off, carefully averting his eyes, as the gods have decreed.

Orpheus and Eurydice (1862) by Edward Poynter


The last act begins with Orpheus leading his wife back to earth through gloomy passages, twisted paths, and dangerous, overhanging cliffs. Eurydice does not know that the gods have decreed that he must not once look upon her before they are safely back on earth. She is slowly changing from a Blessed Spirit (which she was in Act II) into a real, living, warmblooded woman, and she bitterly complains of her husband's treatment. Does he no longer love her? she asks. As Orpheus alternately urges her on and complains to the gods, she becomes more and more urgent. Finally, she tries to send him away: she prefers death to this treatment, and their voices join together at this dramatic moment. At last, Orpheus defies the gods. He turns toward Eurydice; he takes her in his arms; and the moment he touches her, she dies. Now comes the most famous part of the opera—the aria Che foro senza Euridice—"I have lost my Eurydice." In desperation Orpheus is about to stab himself; but at the last moment, the little god Love, Amor, appears, brings Eurydice back to life, and restores her to her husband. The gods, he says, have been so much impressed with his constancy they have decided to reward him.

The final scene of the opera, which takes place in the Temple of Amor, is a series of solos, choruses, and dances in praise of Love. It is a far happier ending than the one given us by mythology. In that one Eurydice remains dead, and Orpheus is torn to pieces by a band of Thracian women who cannot bear his constant mellifluous mourning. The eighteenth century, however, liked to have happy endings to its tragic operas.

Orpheus and Eurydice — George Frederick Watts

bottom of page