According to the legend, Orpheus (in Italian Orfeo) was famous with the Gods for his incredible singing ability and his talent with the lyre, an instrument similar to a small harp but with distinct differences. He is said to have made Gods and men weep with his mourning songs for his beloved Eurydice (Euridice), who died from a snakebite after being pursued by a jealous Aristaeus. Gluck’s opera opens with Orfeo singing these mourning songs and calling out desperately to Euridice. Hearing his pleas, the chorus tells him to take his lyre and travel to the underworld that he might sing to the rulers of Hades and ask for Euridice’s return. Amore, the God of love, offers to help him and cautions him that, in order to prove himself worthy of this gift, on the journey back he must not look at Euridice or her life will be forfeit.
On the journey back to Earth, Euridice, who has been enjoying herself in the underworld entertained by happy spirits, starts to fear that a trick is being played on her and that this is not Orfeo at all. She begs him to turn around and look at her. When he will not she starts to turn back and in his fear of losing her again Orfeo turns, and kills Euridice. His aria ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ (What shall I do without Euridice) is another exposition of Orfeo as the musician trying to deal with his grief. He has nowhere else to go and cannot face return to Earth without her, so he resolves to kill himself that he might be with Euridice again. Unusually, in this version of the legend Amore intervenes, and tells Orfeo that the Gods have seen his courage. Amore brings Euridice back to life and sends the two of them back to Earth, rejoicing.
The beauty and simplicity of Gluck’s music make Orfeo ed Euridice a timeless classic that could be an excellent vehicle to showcase a particular singer in the principal role.