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GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice

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Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)

Orfeo ed Euridice

The son of a forester who, by 1727, was in the service of Prince Philipp Hyazinth von Lobkowitz, Christoph Willibald Gluck was born in 1714 and spent his childhood in his native Bohemia, with its strong musical traditions. He studied at the University of Prague, while continuing his own musical activities, and by 1734 was in Vienna, it is supposed with the patronage of the Lobkowitz family. There followed a period in Italy, chiefly in Milan, during which he began to establish himself as a composer of opera. It was perhaps through his connection with the Lobkowitz family that he found himself in 1746 in London, commissioned to provide opera for the King’s Theatre, and the following years brought employment in various cities of Europe. In 1750 he married in Vienna and in the next years wrote operas on libretti by Metastasio for that city, for Prague, Naples and Rome, while serving first as Konzertmeister and then as Kapellmeister to the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen. For this patron he set Metastasio’s libretto Le cinesi, a sumptuous performance of which for the Emperor brought a satisfactory reward, not least in establishing Gluck in court circles. During the decade he collaborated with Count Durazzo, who had been appointed in 1754 to take charge of the two principal theatres of Vienna, particularly in the provision of adaptations of French opéra comique for the Viennese stage.

The collaboration with Durazzo was of great importance both for Gluck and for the history of opera. In 1755 he became court composer and in 1759 composer of ballets, with responsibility in the following year for theatre music. In 1761 he collaborated with the dancer and ballet-master Gasparo Angiolini in a new ballet d’action, a ballet with a story, following now current fashions, Don Juan ou Le festin de pierre (Don Juan or The Stone Guest). The arrival in Vienna that year of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi was the catalyst for a change of course for opera, now abandoning the conventions of Metastasian opera seria in favour of a new simplicity and a measure of dramatic realism. The first result of the joint work of Calzabigi, Angiolini and Gluck, under the encouragement of Count Durazzo, was Orfeo ed Euridice. There were to be two further ‘reform’ operas with Calzabigi, in 1767 Alceste (Naxos 8.66066-68) and in 1770 Paride ed Elena. Between 1774 and 1779 Gluck enjoyed considerable success in Paris, where a French version of Orfeo ed Euridice was staged in August, 1774, and an adaptation of Alceste two years later. The failure of his Ovidian Echo et Narcisse and ill-health brought him in 1779 back to Vienna, where he remained until his death in 1787.

Gluck later credited Calzabigi with the inspiration for Orfeo ed Euridice, a judgement in which the librettist himself fully concurred. Calzabigi laid particular stress on the relationship between opera and declamation, in one sense a return to the very origins of the form in its late sixteenth-century association with rhetoric. In his introduction to the work he explains that he has changed the scene of Eurydice’s death from Thrace to Campania, near to the reputed entrance to the Underworld near Lake Averno, thus preserving the Aristotelian unity of place. He further adapted the legend, according to which Orpheus had lost Eurydice by disobeying the prohibition laid on him not to look round at her as he left the Underworld, by conforming with the happy ending expected of the modern stage and avoiding the harsher ending outlined in his classical sources, Vergil’s fourth Georgic and the sixth book of the Aeneid. At the first performance, given on 5th October 1762 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the part of Orpheus was taken by the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, with Marianna Bianchi as Eurydice and Lucile Clavereau as Cupid (Love).


[1] The lively overture touches briefly on something of the drama to come.

Act I

Scene 1

[2] Solemn music at the rise of the curtain reveals a lonely grove of laurels and cypresses, with the tomb of Eurydice, around which nymphs and shepherds lament, while Orpheus calls on his beloved.

[3] In a recitative Orpheus bids his companions to desist and leave him alone to mourn.

[4] The nymphs and shepherds continue their mourning dance.

[5] They end their lament and disperse.

[6]-[10] Orpheus calls out the name of his beloved Eurydice, weeping for her loss.

[11] He bitterly inveighs against the powers of the Underworld.

Scene 2

[12] The god of Love appears, offering help. Orpheus will be allowed to bring Eurydice back from the dead, if he can, with his music, placate the furies and spirits of Hades. In bringing her back, he must not turn to look at her, as she follows him back to the land of the living, nor may he explain to her the reason for his actions.

[13] Love urges Orpheus to follow this decree, reminding him that his suffering will be transitory and that lovers are sometimes without words.

[14] Orpheus is overjoyed, but foresees the difficulties he will encounter in Eurydice’s bewilderment at the behaviour commanded of him.

[15] There is thunder and lightning as he goes.

Act II

Scene 1

[16] The scene is set in the dreaded caverns of Hades. Furies and spectres dance their infernal dance, interrupted by the sound of the lyre of Orpheus.

[17] The spirits seek to know who dares to enter Hades, following the heroes Hercules and Pirithous.

[18] They resume their dance.

[19] The spirits repeat their question and call on the Eumenides and Cerberus to deter the mortal, if mortal he is.

[20] They resume their dance.

[21] Orpheus seeks to calm the Furies and spirits.

[22] They are partially placated by his pleas and ask Orpheus his purpose.

[23] Orpheus declares himself a fellow-sufferer with the spirits of Hades, with his own torments.

[24] The spirits are further mollified.

[25] Orpheus continues his pleas, if the spirits around him have ever felt the pangs of love.

[26] Now placated, the spirits give way and allow Orpheus to enter the gates of their realm. They disperse.

Scene 2

[27] The scene changes to a verdant countryside, meadows covered in flowers, arbours and murmuring streams. Orpheus is joined by heroes and heroines of old.

[28] Orpheus delights in the scene, but Elysium is not for him: his paradise is Eurydice, whom he now seeks.

[29] The heroes and heroines praise the courageous example of Orpheus.

[30] They dance.

[31] Orpheus is impatient to see Eurydice, who now appears.

[32] She is escorted by heroines of the past and Orpheus takes her hand and hurriedly leads her away.


Scene 1

[33] Orpheus leads Eurydice on the path to the upper world, always without looking at her. She is at first delighted and then puzzled and angry at the failure of her husband to embrace her or even look at her. He remains steadfast, still leading her on.

[34] Both are distressed by the situation, Eurydice by her husband’s seemingly unfeeling behaviour, and Orpheus by her importunity.

[35] Eurydice foresees future unhappiness and declares herself now unused to the troubles of humanity.

[36] She ha
Disc: 1
Orfeo ed Euridice
1 Overture
2 Act I, Scene 1: Chorus: Ah, se intorno a quest'urn
3 Act I, Scene 1: Recitativo: Basta, basta, o compag
4 Act I, Scene 1: Ballo
5 Act I, Scene 1: Chorus: Ah, se intorno a quest'urn
6 Act I, Scene 1: Aria: Chiamo il mio ben cosi
7 Act I, Scene 1: Recitativo: Euridice, ombra cara
8 Act I, Scene 1: Aria: Cerco il mio ben cosi
9 Act I, Scene 1: Recitativo: Euridice, Euridice!
10 Act I, Scene 1: Aria: Piango il mio ben cosi
11 Act I, Scene 1: Recitativo: Numi, Barbari Numi
12 Act I, Scene 2: Recitiativo: T'assiste Amore!
13 Act I, Scene 2: Aria: Gli sguardi trattieni
14 Act I, Scene 2: Recitativo: Che disse? Che ascolta
15 Act I, Scene 2: End of Act I
16 Act II, Scene 1: Ballo
17 Act II, Scene 1: Chorus: Chi mai dell'Erebo fra le
18 Act II, Scene 1: Ballo
19 Act II, Scene 1: Chorus: Chi mai dell'Erebo fra le
20 Act II, Scene 1: Ballo
21 Act II, Scene 1: Deh placatevi con me
22 Act II, Scene 1: Chorus: Misero giovane, che vuoi,
23 Act II, Scene 1: Aria: Mille pene
24 Act II, Scene 1: Chorus: Ah, quale incognito affet
25 Act II, Scene 1: Aria: Men tiranne
26 Act II, Scene 1: Chorus: Ah, quale incognito affet
27 Act II, Scene 2: Ballo
28 Act II, Scene 2: Arioso: Che puro ciel
29 Act II, Scene 2: Chorus: Vieni a' regni del riposo
30 Act II, Scene 2: Ballo
31 Act II, Scene 2: Recitativo: Anime avventurose
32 Act II, Scene 2: Chorus: Torna, o bella, al tuo co
33 Act III, Scene 1: Recitativo: Vieni, segui i miei
34 Act III, Scene 1: Duetto: Vieni appaga il tuo cons
35 Act III, Scene 1: Recitativo: Qual vita e questa m
36 Act III, Scene 1: Aria: Che fiero momento
37 Act III, Scene 1: Recitativo: Ecco in nuovo tormen
38 Act III, Scene 1: Aria: Che faro senza Euridice?
39 Act III, Scene 1: Recitativo: Ah finisca e per sem
40 Act III, Scene 2: Recitativo: Orfeo, che fai?
41 Act III, Scene 3: Chorus: Trionfi Amore
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