Friday, December 17, 2021

Conductor Stephen Stubbs Discusses Gluck And Orpheus

Orpheus and Eurydice conductor Stephen Stubbs sat down with Seattle Opera to discuss the longevity of the Orpheus myth, the storys malleable ending, and what sets Christoph Willibald Gluck's version apart.

Why were the Renaissance inventors of opera so obsessed with the myth of Orpheus?
Two reasons: first, when opera was new—and even today—an obvious question is, ‘Why are these people singing at each other instead of speaking?’ But if your protagonist is the semi-god of music, and he’s surrounded by all these nymphs and shepherds from the pastoral world, you’ve created a reality where it makes sense that everybody would sing all the time. Also, those Renaissance artists liked what the story says about the power of music. Orpheus can tame wild beasts through music, and even has the power to go to hell and bring Eurydice back.

You’ve worked on lots of Orpheus operas. Do you have a favorite?
Yes, for the first two hundred years of opera, they were constantly writing operas about Orpheus. Claudio Monteverdi and Christoph Willibald Gluck get performed a lot. The Orfeo of Luigi Rossi (1647) is a fantastic piece, well worthy of revival. They just gave it at Juilliard. And Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s incomplete Descente d’Orphée aux enfers (1686) has some of the most sublime music I know. Antonio Sartorio’s (1672) is another favorite. Near and dear to my heart is La morte d’Orfeo of 1619 by Stefano Landi. We gave that one last year with the Young Artists of L.A. Opera at a flamenco bar in Silverlake. It’s a sequel to Monteverdi’s Orfeo of 1607; it shows Orpheus being torn limb from limb by the wild Bacchantes. And now that he’s actually dead, he goes to find Eurydice in the underworld, but she doesn’t recognize him anymore

La morte d'Orfeo at El Cid in Silverlake in 2020. Credit: Craig T. Matthew / LA Opera
That’s not how Monteverdi ended his opera!
Actually, the ending of Monteverdi’s
Orfeo is debated. The libretto and score don’t agree. In the libretto, the wild women tear Orpheus limb from limb, and his head goes floating down the river (as happens in Ovid’s Metamorphoses). But that opera was written for a wedding, and apparently somebody said, “That ending just isn’t appropriate,” so they wrote the ending where Orpheus joins his father Apollo in heaven. I just wrote new music for the first ending, the one from the printed libretto, doing my best to use Monteverdi’s musical language. We’ll perform my new ending at a concert in Seattle next May.

You and your colleagues have eliminated the deus ex machina happy ending that concludes Gluck’s opera. Tell us about how this Orpheus will end.
Yes, I’ve always felt the happy ending of the 1762 Vienna version feels a bit tacked-on, like an appendage. [Stage Director] Chía Patiño suggested changing the ending and using the plaintive flute solo, which Gluck added (for his 1774 French version) to the Elysian Fields scene. We’ll conclude with just harp, as Orpheus, and flute, as the soul of Eurydice. I’m excited about this new, more melancholy ending.

Have you worked on Gluck’s opera before?
Many times, but only once before with a countertenor. Early music works best when you perform it in the register for which it was written. And countertenors have come a long way from the hooty, pure, choir-boy sound they used to make sixty, seventy years ago...we now have amazing virtuosos, with potent voices for opera.

How was Gluck’s Orfeo different from the typical 1760s opera?
He puts the story-telling power of music center stage, and just goes straight for the jugular. Think of his “Hell” music. It’s so imposing! Without refinement, without curlicues. No composer before him would have done something that bald. To me, that’s its great strength. At that time, Italian opera was mostly just virtuoso solos. Gluck infuses it with virtues from the French
tragédie lyrique: lots of dance, spectacle, and instrumental music. And complex extended recitatives, like the long dialogue between Orpheus and Eurydice when they’re en route back to earth from hell. There, Gluck sets his performers a really difficult task: the orchestra must ebb and flow with the ever-changing emotions of the singers. The players must understand the scene deeply, in a way that challenges industry practice (then as now!).

When Orpheus grieves his lost love (in his final aria, “Che farò senza Euridice”), why is it in a major key?
Today we tend to think Major = Happy and Minor = Sad. That wasn’t what they thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Think about the German terms,
Dur and Moll. In that way of thinking, Major = Hard, Minor = Soft. Major keys were used for anything harsh or heroic, minor keys for tenderness. But this aria is still unusual: I think it’s about submission to fate. And Gluck wanted to give Orpheus something heart-rendingly beautiful to sing.

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