Orpheus at the Opera

For our 2019 Orpheus Series, we have programmed four works from the treasure-store of literally hundreds of Orpheus operas. These are: Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice; Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld; Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus and Glass’s Orphée.

The sequence of four works reflects not only the traditional themes of the Greek original but also the multi-layered evolution of the myth to reflect society’s changing needs as we seek to comprehend mysteries and passions that elude us.

In this piece, we’ve explore some of the numerous operatic retellings of the Orpheus myth.

Mythic accounts of a mortal reclaimed from the domain of the dead are common to many cultures, both East and West. Some versions of the myth have a happy ending, but for Eurydice in the Orpheus myth there is only a second, irreversible death.

It is a story that is mentioned in Greek literature as early as the 7th century BCE and later retold by, among others, Ovid, Virgil, Pindar, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Rilke, Valéry and Cocteau.

In the myth, Orpheus is a musician whose singing and playing of his lyre can charm the natural world as well as calm those terrifying beings that guard the entrance to the Underworld.

Numerous composers produced their own operatic versions, notably Gluck (1762/1774), Johann Christian Bach (1770) and Haydn (1791), and in the 20th century figures such as Krenek (1926) and Milhaud (1926). Stravinsky, a composer always attracted to universal, mythic stories, whether Russian folklore (Petrushka, The Rite of Spring) or Greek myth (Persephone, Apollo), wrote his neoclassical ballet (1947) – Orpheus ­– for George Balanchine.

A story about the power of love and music against the inevitability of human weakness and death appealed to the earliest librettists and composers of lyric drama in Italy during the period of the Renaissance. These courtly entertainments concerning Orpheus and Eurydice began to evolve closer to what we might consider as opera.

In 1600, the two earliest extant operas, by Peri and Caccini, were both settings of the same libretto entitled L’Euridice. But it is Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo – premiered in Mantua in 1607, it was not revived for 300 years – which remains the most celebrated of the earliest operatic interpretations of the myth, with its highly expressive musical character articulating the widest range of emotions.

After Monteverdi, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice continued to hold sway over composers, attracted to this particular myth by the implied message of the power of music and the opportunities it affords for spectacle in both the horrors and beauties of the Underworld.


Unlike Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1762, revised 1774) remained continuously in the operatic repertory and was one of the most important stage works to transmit the story. It concentrates its focus on only three characters – Orpheus, Eurydice and Cupid – and gives an important role to the chorus, who function both Orpheus’ companions and the Furies of the Underworld.

As was fashionable in the mid-18th century, dance plays an integral role within the whole dramatic structure. Gluck exploits numerous orchestral effects for dramatic purposes and highlights the use of the harp to represent Orpheus’ magical lyre.

Its happy ending – Eurydice does not die a second time after Orpheus looks round at her on their journey back from the Underworld – is a product of Enlightenment values.

The cool classicism of Gluck’s version of the myth yields to Offenbach’s riotous, all-singing, all-dancing take, Orpheus in the Underworld (1858,revised 1874). In this version, revered figures from classical antiquity, the gods included, are revealed in a series of increasingly farcical situations.

There could not be a greater contrast of approach to the timeless story. For Offenbach, the Underworld becomes a party-filled world of pleasure, the gods’ celebrated can-can uniting 19th-century Paris and the Classical world.

Offenbach even makes a cheeky nod to Gluck’s score at one point, by briefly quoting Orpheus’s aria ‘Che faro senza Euridice?’

1985 - Birtwistle retelling of the Orpheus story premiere’s at ENO

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (1985), to a libretto by Peter Zinovieff, was premiered by ENO in 1986, under the batons of Andrew Davis and ENO Music Director, Martyn Brabbins.

Like Stravinsky, Birtwistle has been fascinated by ritual, folklore and Greek myth, and Orpheus in particular has been the focus of several of his works.

The structure of the plot of The Mask of Orpheus is complex. Rather than progressing in an A–B–C trajectory, the plot is non-linear and explores various versions of the myth in several directions at once. Each of the major characters – Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus – appear in three forms, and individual events may occur several different times.

Birtwistle’s score employs large orchestral forces to telling effect and includes some precisely composed electronic music which provides an aura for each act as well as electronic interludes. The result is a remarkable fusion of music and drama on a Wagnerian scale.

One of the most recent operatic retellings of the Orpheus myth, Philip Glass’s 1993 chamber opera, Orphée, is based on Cocteau’s classic cinematic account.

Not heard in London in over a decade, this extended parable on the life of a poet and the dangers of self-obsession is a hypnotically beautiful work, with a delicate instrumental palette.

It is a beguiling and sensitive response to the Orpheus story, which, while providing its own unique account, can be considered a contemporary companion to Gluck’s exquisite version from the eighteenth-century.