Christoph Willibald Von Gluck: Orpheus and Eurydice

A reform opera. It sounds like a place where bad composers are sentenced to hard labour.

It was Gluck’s attempt to make new things happen in what he considered to be the increasingly stuck-in-the-mud world of eighteenth-century French opera – or azione teatrale (‘theatrical action’), as he would have known it. How was it stuck in the mud? Well, it was over-mannered and it was over-reliant on techniques that meant that works with the loosest of plots were being allowed to pass for operas. Gluck’s idea, which was developed by composers such as Puccini years later, was to make opera much more real.

Gluck seems to have been adhering to the unwritten law of opera that appears to state that ‘When new ground is to be broken, it must be to the story of Orpheus’. In his version of the story, out went the dull recitatives, replaced by fully accompanied ones; out went sheer virtuosity just for virtuosity’s sake and in came singing that enhanced the plot or advanced the character. It was a revolution both in style and content, which moved the whole genre of opera into a new place. Other composers raced to embrace Gluck’s trail-blazing ideas.

Recommended Recording 

Juan Diego Flórez (tenor) as Orphée; Ainhoa Garmendia (soprano) as Eurydice; Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, Madrid; Jesús López Cobos (conductor). Label: Decca. Catalogue No.: 4782197.