Lindsay Ohse

‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ review: back from the dead

Portland Opera creates a new production of Gluck’s masterpiece that the composer himself might have enjoyed


I’ll admit, I’ve been negligent about my concert attendance of late. My reasoning, I suppose, is that I needed a good long rest. But now having roused myself to attentiveness I have heard that I perhaps made a bit of an impression back in my day; that my ideas on opera might have taken off. Perhaps I left the art form better for my having been one of its most ardent of admirers. And right here, I see that the Portland Opera is performing my Orfeo ed Euridice. Delightful!

So it is that Christoph Willibald von Ritter Gluck is sitting in the fifth row center at the Newmark Theater in Portland5 Center for the Arts. In an otherworldly haze (he’s been dead some 230 years), he’s leafing through the Portland Opera’s magazine TOI! TOI! from the 2017-18 season taking stock of the opera performances that have preceded his. A Rossini (La Cenerentola), a Gounod (Faust), a Verdi (Rigoletto). A season of grand tales. Grand stages, grand effects, grand orchestras and, then, there it is. His Orfeo ed Euridice as the end piece. The closer. Did he imagine when he sent it into the world in 1762 that it be a firestarter, reigniting a smoldering musical genre?

Actually, yes, this was his master plan.

Lindsay Ohse as Euridice and Sandra Piques Eddy as Orfeo in Portland Opera’s production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/ Portland Opera.

This plan was years in contemplation. For so long, opera had been disfigured, abused. Soloists performed florid arias, repeating passages with embellishments not once but twice, thrice, only to launch into ego-boosting cadenzas. Ah, well. I had a different idea in mind.

Gluck, Bavarian by birth, had his first opera produced in Milan in 1741, on a libretto by the revered Pietro Metastasio. This prolific poet and librettist was living in Vienna and enjoying extreme popularity as a poet for the virtuosic singer, writing not for the drama but for the virtuosic effect. The story line, character development and plots became secondary. Opera Seria stagnated in this atmosphere

Oh, those operas of Metastasio — “opera seria.” I had grown weary of the ridiculous pandering to vocalists, the loss of story. I longed to return to the great tales, to make the stage come alive with movement and fill the air with music in search of a story. Oh, but did it cause a commotion.

Gluck (and later Mozart) would place all forces (singer, orchestra, ballet, chorus, staging) on equal footing, all in the service of the story. The Handelian da capo “variations” were decapitated. Orchestral overtures, chorus and ballet were added. Gluck had already broken away from “opera seria” in the years prior to Orfeo with several “opera comique.” Now he would tackle the status quo of opera seria.