The Myth—Ancient

The Greek myths about Orpheus epitomize the power of music.  Orpheus was given a lyre by Apollo, and he certainly became a musical prodigy. Forget about touching the heart; when Orpheus sang and played the lyre, his music had the power to calm wild beasts and even soften rocks!

In retellings of the Greek myths through the ages, Orpheus was considered a “demigod.” In some versions, his father was Oeagrus, King of Thrace, and his mother, Calliope, Muse of poetry and rhythm. In other versions, Apollo the sun god was his father. Yet as made clear in operatic portrayals, Orpheus—like fully human beings—could die. And as Apollo advises Orpheus in Claudio Monteverdi’s “story in music,” no happiness on earth lasts.

The most famous story about Orpheus is about his love for his wife Eurydice. It is a story of extreme grief in the face of sudden loss of a beloved, all the more wrenching because it happened just after the wedding.  While taking a walk with her companions, Eurydice stepped on a poisonous snake which bit her. She died instantly, and her shadow went to the underworld, ruled by Pluto and (in the wintertime) his consort Persephone.

Orpheus was so overcome with grief that on top of constantly singing about his loss, he decided to seek Eurydice in the underworld and try to bring her back to life. His singing touched everyone, including Persephone—and through her, Pluto, who allowed Orpheus to take Eurydice back to the upper world, on condition that he not look at her until they arrived again in the open air. When almost there, Orpheus forgot, or just wanted to make sure Eurydice was there. For whatever reason, he took a fatal look behind, and she was gone. Orpheus was not allowed to go after Eurydice a second time, and lived in mourning, only to be eventually torn apart by the Bacchantes (followers of Bacchus, god of wine) because he had vowed not to love another woman—or in some retellings, because he would not worship Bacchus, but only Apollo the sun god. In any case, the Muses buried his fragments; his lyre was placed in the stars by Zeus; and his shade did find Eurydice again in the Elysian Fields, where he could look at her forever with love and without harm. At least that’s one version.

* * *

Back up on Earth’s surface, this story has served as artistic inspiration for poets, musicians, and dancers for centuries. What follows in this essay is  information about three versions of Orpheus, with music by three composers from different times: a Baroque “story in music” told by way of deeply moving dramatic singing first performed at a Mantua court in 1607, with brief rural dances by peasants and nymphs at the beginning and the end; a Classical opera with mostly more serene music plus choreographed dances, produced in Vienna in 1762 and then in Paris, 1774; and a modern version to instrumental music (no singing) that is totally choreographed and danced, produced in 1948 in New York.  Both the earlier Monteverdi and Gluck works would figure importantly in the artistic experiences of Stravinsky and Balanchine for their 1948 ballet.

notes and explorations:

The outline of the Orpheus story is adapted from Thomas Bullfinch, Myths of Greece and Rome, compiled by Bryan Holme (New York: Penguin Books, 1979) pp. 218-22.


Though not the work to be considered the very first “opera,” yet L’Orfeo as composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) for its 1607 performance in Mantua, Italy, is the very first European one to survive through the ages and still be performed in our own times. Just a few years prior to that, two other Italian composers had used the same story, with the title Euridice. The music in the historic 1600 performance was mainly by Jacopo Peri, but also incorporated sections from another opera by the same name, written by Giulio Caccini. Neither of these works is staged nowadays, although there is some pretty music. (An idea of what that was like is given by one rare performance with period instruments, available online. See links.)

Monteverdi’s Orfeo, however, continues to provide emotional theatrical experiences for modern audiences. Drawing on Renaissance traditions of madrigal singing, the work injected a new style of “recitative” (solo singing with accompaniment by just a few instruments) in order to tell a story in music, with dances punctuating appropriate moments in the action.

seeing it now

Perhaps the most theatrical performance available on DVD and You Tube is the 1978 performance by the Zurich Opera and Ballet staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. (See endnotes.) The orchestra uses period instruments, which give a very distinct sound. The singers—most especially Philippe Huttenlocher as Orfeo—offer nuanced and dramatic recitatives, duets, trios, and choruses. In addition to the small ensemble that accompanies just the “recitatives,” there is a rich full orchestra that performs the purely instrumental “ritornellos” interspersed with the singing sections. The original libretto by Alessandro Striggio is given in translation as subtitles, and the costuming is exceptional. All in all, this offers a riveting experience, with the emphasis being on the meaning of the text rather than vocal virtuosity.

In five acts, Monteverdi first provides a solo introduction by “La Musica” (who later on portrays Hope). The story begins with the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice, attended by shepherds and nymphs, who not only sing but also dance and tumble. Orpheus sings praises of his homeland, Arcadia, when he is brought the news of Eurydice’s death.  By the third act, the character of Hope leads Orpheus to the gates of the underworld, but can go no further herself because the words on the door say “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”

The singing and lyre playing of Orpheus put the boatman Charon (who has an astounding bass voice) to sleep, so that Orpheus is able to cross the river Styx into Hades. Persephone is touched by the love of Orpheus for Eurydice. Upon Persephone’s pleading, Pluto allows Eurydice to leave, on condition that Orpheus not look at her until they reach the upper world. So the two start out, Eurydice following in the footsteps of Orpheus. All goes well until there is a commotion offstage. Orpheus worries that Furies may be carrying Eurydice away. He looks back to make sure that everything is all right, convincing himself that Love is a stronger power than the god of the underworld. Immediately a black mesh veil falls between husband and wife. Eurydice stays in sight long enough to sing a poignant farewell, and must return to Hades forever.

This version of the opera does not have a gruesome ending. Instead, while back on earth’s surface Orpheus is singing and vowing that he shall never love another woman, he is attacked but not killed by the Bacchantes and lies prostrate. But behold: Apollo appears and invites his son to go to heaven with him, where he will see a reminder of Eurydice’s beautiful image, in the stars, and enjoy immortal life himself. So father and son go up into the sky on a cloud, and down below, a chorus of nymphs and shepherds briefly sing and dance as their joyful farewell—and the end of the opera.

That is the second known version of Monteverdi’s musical portrayal. Apparently the first ended with the Bacchantes’ horror of ripping Orpheus to shreds, and it has been suggested that perhaps the composer changed the ending to be more appropriate for a social “entertainment” at the court of Mantua.

The first performance was in one of the fine galleries of the Gonzaga family palaces. There would not have been room for much scenery or a huge chorus. Unfortunately, we don’t have any written description of the dance episodes or other specifics except to say that the host was so pleased with the performance that he scheduled another very soon in a larger venue, which would probably have lent itself to more extended physical movements. But in regard to the dancing, both the libretto’s words and the notated moresca (Moorish dance) that ends the opera would validate the inclusion of choreographed dance that is usually seen in contemporary productions.

the composer’s style

Monteverdi’s score (which showed some instrumental lines, vocal lines plus a figured bass) was published by the composer in 1609 and again in 1615. The composer was meticulous in the preparations. The score indicates “families” of instruments to play at various points, but not every detail. The instrumentalists were accustomed to improvising patterns on given harmonies. In modern times, contemporary composers have made various arrangements. But one ingredient that helps to make the Zurich production special is the use of period instruments.

Especially in the brief dance episodes, one rhythmic device that is easily recognizable and that lends a lot of zest, is the use of hemiola, suddenly changing meter for a little bit, particularly near a cadence or end of a phrase. (For instance, from 6/8 meter to 3/4 which would give the feeling of going from duple meter or a feeling of in two—conducted up-down—to triple meter—obviously conducted in three, but with the basic note retaining the same time value.)

Also heard are singers who offer emotionally nuanced recitatives (like sung speech rather than musically-evolved melodies). In some places—notably in the long solo by Orpheus singing to Charon the boatman, or in last scene with Apollo and Orpheus—the vocal lines have quite a bit of “melisma” or singing several pitched notes, or even a little melody, for just one syllable of a word.

As opera was developed after Monteverdi—notably in the works of Handel and Italian composers—there would be very long melodies sung to one word or syllable. In fact, the star singers, in order to show off their splendid techniques, would improvise in performance and add all kinds of ornamentation to the written compositions. It was in reaction to this kind of practice that led Gluck (our next composer) to want to reform opera and present more simple melodies with a clear harmonic accompaniment, and very little polyphony (strands of melodic lines going simultaneously).

In Monteverdi’s Orfeo, there is light polyphony when there are duets or trios or choruses singing—much in the manner of the many Renaissance-style vocal madrigals that the composer had written and published. And harmonically, general practice had not yet eliminated all the medieval “modes” to just major and minor, so there are different harmonic flavors, along with distinctive cadences or closures at the ends of melodic phrases.

One more musical practice, is the Renaissance tradition of “word painting.” In Orfeo, one example is in Act I when the word “spring” (as in springtime) is sung. Also at the end when Apollo sings “Let us rise,” and his voice goes up up up. Or in Act I when the nymph brings bad news, she repeats a pitch in halting rhythm—much like the sound of sobbing.

But the appeal of the singing in most of the work is the evocation of sincere emotion, from joy to anguish and serenity. As evidence to the continuing power of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, here we are more than 400 years later, and both online and through DVD several different performances can be seen.

other revivals

On one Arts Florissants DVD filmed in 2017, the director Paul Agnew (who cast himself singing both Apollo and Echo) decided that since the original setting in Mantua was perhaps limited in performing space, he would use just one singer per vocal part in the chorus, in the style of madrigal singers.

Visually, Agnew was inspired by the paintings of Poussin, and so the costuming has a rather sweet aura. He was also taken with the symbolism of Apollo as the sun god, and decided to have only one stage setting to serve the entire opera: one reminiscent of Stonehenge or Celtic places of worship. For the “upper world,” there is cheerful light; for the underworld, the lighting is changed. Musically, the instrumentalists play on reproductions of period instruments, all onstage, and often by memory. In the small space, there isn’t really room for much dancing, but there is a sense of the singers’ community and the emotional impact as if you were watching real people. Noticeably, Orpheus doesn’t even need to hold a visual lyre. The role is sung and acted earnestly by Cyril Auvity.

An earlier Arts Florissants performance, this one under the direction of William Christie, with choreography by Gheorghe Iancu, was much more elaborate in staging. This is a splendid presentation in Madrid that with scenery by Pier Luigi Pizzi at first imparts the feeling of what the first Renaissance venue might have been, but ends with chorus in modern dress (all black) on an almost bare stage. A single metallic tree on a table is enough to suggest the woodlands.

One thing that has not been mentioned here so far is the use of Monteverdi’s “ritornello” sections for strings and recorders. These are the reoccurring purely instrumental passages between the verses of a singer’s solo.  For the underworld instrumental sections, notably different is the sound of the reed organ, period trombones and cornetts. It should also be noted that on the extra tracks of the Christie DVD, the singer Dietrich Henschel talks about how the tuning of instruments was different in Monteverdi’s day—so depending on the mode and key center, the flavor would be quite different. One can hear these contrasts, offering impressions of sweetness or stress in various scenes of Orfeo.

There are a number of performances now available on DVD, each with its own approach to staging, acting, and singing. It can be interesting to compare them, not only in regard to musical performance, but importantly, about how the staging included dance of various styles.

a modern dancer’s interpretation

Offering a contemporary theatrical take on the same Monteverdi score, Trisha Brown (1936-2017, an American “abstract choreographer”) staged Orfeo at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1998, with the musical direction and conducting of René Jacobs and with Simon Keenlyside singing the role of Orfeo.  Roland Aeschlimann designed unique decor including a flying apparatus for La Musica (with the idea, as explained by the choreographer, that music has no bounds and can go anywhere). The costumes of the singers and dancers were identical modern white jackets with baggy pants, and Eurydice had what can only be described as a strapless bouffant blue dress.

The performance on DVD is accompanied by a second very interesting disc that documents some of the preparations, and Trisha Brown explains that in her approach, the movement was not acting, nor yet dance, but rather something different. A big part of the challenge, obviously, was to come up with movements that did not interfere with the physical requirements of singing. The singers had movements, but there were also segments for professional dancers.

Simon Keenlyside (Orpheus) suggests that sometimes the movements prescribed for the singers were related to the text; sometimes not, more of a counterpoint. Which explains why to the first-time viewer the unnatural straight palm gestures and mannered arm movements could seem unrelated to the  music, the emotional content, and the text itself. It is easy to wonder if the gestures were some kind of symbolic sign language. (They weren’t.)  So viewers might keep an open mind at first and then ask questions. In any case, this is a really different approach.

The music director, René Jacobs, made some very informative remarks: starting by pointing out that in this Monteverdi work (unlike 19th century opera where the melody is usually in the forefront) the text is the number one component. After that the rhythm, then the melody. His instrumentalists also used reproduction “period” instruments, but he felt no need to be a “purist” about the performance. He said that an historical reconstruction really isn’t possible. He showed several pages of Monteverdi’s published score and observed that trombones and cornetti accompany passages in the underworld. And it must be said that the use of a harp was particularly beautiful (to suggest an ancient lyre).

a strange landmark

After the success of his Orfeo, Monteverdi composed perhaps 13 more operas—most of them now lost forever. In 1613 he was made master of music at the famous St. Mark’s cathedral in Venice, where he not only composed voluminous amounts of sacred music, but was also in charge of performances. Considering his overall achievements, one historian wrote: “Monteverdi’s place in the history of Renaissance music can be justly compared to Shakespeare’s in literature!”

But focusing on Monteverdi’s music for dance: a year after Orfeo, the composer provided the music for a very strange dramatic work: Il ballo delle ingrate (Ballet of the Ungrateful Women), which had an important dance element, and for which we have material that was published at the time with the music and theatrical plot. The occasion was for a marriage, yet the story was about young women who refused to be married, and came to a sad ending (actually in Hell) because of that attitude. It is considered a landmark in the development of theatrical dance, and the notes below suggest sources for further information, including some performances that can be viewed online.


notes and explorations:


For a complete score of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo set in modern notation, with Italian words set under the vocal lines, and with English translation provided at the end, see the Edition Eulenberg No. 8025, London, 2004.  Here is a brief sample, with guiding arrow, of what the “score” would look like, with vocal line, and the bottom line the bass. Another sample of a score, showing instrument lines, and very florid vocal part with ornaments, where Orpheus says without Eurydice he is bereft of life too, and therefore he asks Charon the ferryman to row him across the river.

opera performances: This is the entire 1978 performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by the Zurich Opera and Ballet. It is wonderful from its beginning when the musicians enter with their period instruments. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

The Zurich production of L’Orfeo is on a Deutsche Grammophon/Unitel DVD.

Harmonia Mundi DVD of 2017 performance by Les Arts Florissants under direction of Paul Agnew. Highly recommended.
Same performance. Includes some vigorous dance sections! French subtitles. Brief sample of the above excellent performance, with Cyril Auvity singing the big solo “Possente spirto.” A review of the Arts Florissants DVD directed by Paul Agnew.

The staging by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, filmed in Madrid in 2008 can be seen on a Teatro Real DVD.  Another “period” performance, from Barcelona. At the end of this one, Apollo and Orpheus really go up into clouds. Staged by Gilbert Deflo. Jordi Savall, conductor. La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Also available on Opus Arte DVD with subtitles.
Another mounting of the 2002 performance in Barcelona. An audio only performance of the Peri-Caccini opera at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2000, visually displaying the Italian libretto with English translation. Directed by John Walter Hill with instrumentalists playing on period instruments. Part of a symposium marking the 400thanniversary of the opera. Here is a link to the table of contents for their special commemorative journal:

Tricia Brown’s setting:

The performance with Tricia Brown’s choreography, at the Monnaie, is available on an Harmonia Mundi DVD. This is a Gramophone review of the Trisha Brown DVD of Orfeo. This is a 1999 review by The New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, of a live performance of Trisha Brown’s version. She calls it a “downtown look.” While praising it, she suggests it may not be for everybody. Another dance critic’s reaction to Brown’s version, from New York magazine.

Il ballo delle ingrate: A 2018 performance of Il Ballo della ingrate in modern dress but with period instruments, by Royal Irish Academy of Music.  Music only. Quite a bass! A review from The New York Times of a recent Greenwich Village performance of Il Ballo delle ingrate, in 2012.

Il ballo delle ingrate is in Book VIII of Claudio Monteverdi, Madrigals (New York: Dover Publications, 1991) ed. Gian Francesco Malipiero; translations by Stanley Appelbaum. Article from the Journal of the International Guild of Musicians in Dance, Vol 7, winter 2007. Andy Teirstein, “Il ballo delle ingrate: A Lost Genre Whose Time Has Come?” Or:  Unidentified striking countertenor. A 2010 Swiss production, rather blurry. Part 2, same performance. A clip from another performance.


To see what some of the Renaissance instruments looked like, and hear samples of music played on reproduction instruments, go to and click on each picture in turn. Many of these types of instruments were still in use during Monteverdi’s time.

further information:

Schrade, Leo, Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1979 republication of scholarly  work originally published in1950).

There are a number of recordings of the 1686 opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, titled La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, including the one on Harmonia Mundi label featuring the Ensemble Correspondances under Sébastien Daucé. Also, on You Tube a number of recorded performances of earliest L’Euridice by Peri and Caccini: by Scherzi Musicali. showing score in original notation. Concerto italiano conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini, 2013. Boston Early Music Festival lively half-hour 2020 pre-performance talk by music historian Thomas Forrest Kelly. He not only introduces the vocal styles and instrumental ritornellos, but also shares some of his photographs of the area around the Duke of Mantua’s palace (where Monteverdi’s Orfeo was first performed) as it appears nowadays. In conversation with Robert Mealy, talks about dramatic passion and procedures in the opera.

Additionally recommended is the book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, First Nights: Five Musical Premieres (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). In the opening chapter, the author offers considerable details and questions about the preparations and 1607 private performances of Monteverdi’s Orfeo  as well as contextual historical information about the Gonzaga family, the palace and Mantua, the type of people likely in the audience, letters concerning the castrato singer, what he characterizes as the “dazzlingly virtuosic music-making” in the opera, the subsequently-published score, the instruments used, and much more!

Explaining his view about contemporary revivals, Kelly wrote (introduction, p. xiii):

I do believe…that some of the best and most exciting musical performances being given today are by performers using old techniques and period instruments. Musicians must somehow make the music and the performance their own—they must add to, not subtract from, a musical text….

I treat every piece of music as an element of its culture, providing classic case studies. This, I hope, will help demonstrate how changing traditions of performance are important to the sound and the effect of music and possibly make an argument for the ultimate impossibility of “authentic performance.”


Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-87) composed a notable ballet score in 1761 for Don Juan, which was choreographed by Gaspero Angiolini and premiered in Vienna.  However, it is his opera Orfeo ed Euridice that theater-goers are most likely to see and hear nowadays. It was premiered in Vienna in 1762 (also choreographed by Angiolini) with the role of Orpheus sung by a castrato (a male alto). But for the 1774 performances in France (where castrated singers were not allowed to perform), Gluck rewrote the part for a tenor. The score was revised again by Hector Berlioz in 1859 to suit the pitch range of a certain contralto. In modern times, despite how unusual it may seem to see a woman portraying a man, yet apparently for musical reasons, the original Italian version has been most apt to be used.

The librettist, Raniero da Calzabigi, streamlined some aspects of the mythological story, with the result that there were a lot of choral sections—beginning with nymphs and shepherds gathering at the deceased Euridice’s tomb. As always, Orpheus is grief-stricken, but in this case Eros (deity of Love, sung by a woman) appears and encourages Orpheus to descend to the underworld playing his lyre and singing sweetly. It is Eros who admonishes Orpheus not to look at Euridice before they come back to upper regions.

In the second act, the Furies are subdued by the music, but Orpheus does not confront Pluto; instead, it is the Blessed Spirits who release Euridice. These scenes over the centuries have provided occasions for two contrasting dances: the wild one of the Furies (with the music taken from Gluck’s Don Juan) and the well-known dance of the Blessed Spirits with its beautiful flute solo. The music for these two sections extracted from the opera, was subsequently used for modern dances by Isadora Duncan, which continue to be performed in what is considered her style.

Going back to the original Gluck opera: poor Euridice doesn’t know that Eros told Orpheus not to look back, and she starts complaining bitterly, to the point where Orpheus turns, and she dies again instantly. Orpheus is left to sing his very famous lament, “Che faro senza Euridice?” and he is about to stab himself when lo and behold, Eros appears, then brings Euridice back to life—as a reward because Orpheus has been so constant. In gratitude, the final scene displays praises of Love, in solos, choruses, and dances. Much happier ending than the Greek myth!

the composer’s style

Musically, there is an enormous difference between the styles of Monteverdi and Gluck. The latter composer really ushered in the period of what we consider the Classical period of music—with a capital C. But Gluck is sometimes considered by music historians to have worked during the “Rococo” age.

Gluck got an early start—attaching himself to a nobleman’s service in Vienna, and following him to Milan, where opera was very popular. By the time he was only 30, he himself had had eight of his own operas produced. After a peripatetic career for a decade, Gluck settled in Vienna, where in 1754 the Empress Maria Theresa appointed him as composer to the court theater. It was there that he evolved his style—as noted already, composing a very noteworthy ballet titled Don Juan, followed soon by his opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The main change from earlier composing styles was in simplifying, having clarity in the harmonic accompaniment to unornamented melody.

Twelve years after its premiere, Gluck revised his opera, and that is when the suite of dances at the end was added, choreographed by Gasparo Angiolini.

the original choreographer

Gluck’s collaborator as both librettist for Don Juan and as choreographer for both that ballet and his opera Orpheus was the Italian ballet master Gaspero Angiolini (1731-1803). During his successful career the dance artist worked in Italy, Vienna, Paris, and St. Petersburg. Some of his major work was for Gluck’s scores—in addition to Don Juan and Orpheus and Euridice—included Semiramide, Iphigénie en Aulide and Alessandro, and a ballet version of the opera La Cythere Assiegée. He also performed as a dancer in Gluck’s La Rencontre Imprévue. Dance historians have noted him as a rival and critic of Jean Georges Noverre (see upcoming essay on Mozart). Ironically, when Angiolini returned to his native Italy, he was imprisoned in 1797 because of his sympathies for the progressive ideas of France! In his professional work, he was extremely musical, composing some scores himself. And for the initial performances of Don Juan in Vienna, Angiolini danced the leading role which he had choreographed!

modern  presentations of Orpheus

In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton mounted Gluck’s Orpheus with the Royal Ballet, using a combination of the 1762 and 1774 scores, with the premiere conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The famous singer Kathleen Ferrier portrayed the lead role; Alexander Grant led the Furies; Svetlana Beriosova danced the Blessed Spirits. And the pity is that there is no film easily available so we could see this version, for which the decor by Sophie Fedorovitch was in an abstract style yet suggesting Grecian designs.

A performance still considered quite outstanding by opera buffs, though the filming left much to be desired, was the Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1982 presentation starring Dame Janet Baker, who was so highly admired in this role. Raymond Lepparo conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the whole performance shows a traditional approach to Gluck’s opera.

From the first notes of the orchestra, the style certainly sounds more like refined Mozart to come rather than the raw emotional music by Monteverdi that was! There is a very long segment of dancing at the very end—historically accurate, for that is what Gluck wrote. The Blessed Spirits, in contrast, move in slow motion and touching hands is about the extent of what they do. The Furies are tumbling men, and do not seem to be threatening Orpheus too much.

Mark Morris at the Met

A recent stylistic departure in performance, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was directed by the modern dance choreographer Mark Morris. The soloists and the Met’s chorus performed gloriously. But Morris added the members of his dance company, and for lovers of dance, this version really has to be the ultimate performance of the Italian version of Gluck’s opera.

One of the intriguing aspects of the production was the way the chorus members were placed in balconies at the back of the stage, as if they were in a theater looking down at the action. Each singer was costumed to be a real historical person, and that created a lot of interest for the audience trying to identify each one. On top of that, the sound of this large vocal chorus is simply beautiful even in recording, and the choreographer has given them minimal but important commentary motions from time to time.

Orpheus—sung so very believably in the film by Stephanie Blythe—wore  a regular modern black suit, carrying a guitar instead of a lyre. The Met orchestra used modern instruments, whereas in a previous staging by Mark Morris for the Handel and Haydn Society, period instruments were used with Christopher Hogwood conducting. Heidi Grant Murphy portrayed the charming Cupid, lowered through the air to give the warning about not looking back. Danielle de Niese was a most entrancing Euridice.

The dance troupe never interfered with the centrality of Orpheus. Instead, it is noticeable that often the dancers were performing to purely orchestral sections. Their choreographed movements, whether individualized or in communal patterns, certainly added to the meaning of the story. They were not showing off technically, though many of the movements must surely be difficult. Instead, they add to the emotion of the story. For instance, when wearing shades of grey they hold onto each other in lines to indicate the descent into the underworld (though in those moments Orpheus is actually offstage). Or as the Blessed Spirits, when they are clothed in white and dance in a wide circle. An impressive staircase had moved down onto the stage, and we understand the symbolism. The lovely Euridice appears, smiling, told to greet her husband, and the husband and wife begin walking, he in front holding her hand but following directions in not looking back. That scene has only the two singers ascending, between a sparkling dark blue curtain and the semblance of a cavern wall toward the audience suggesting a rocky way up. When in distress Orpheus finally looks back, Euridice is immediately carried out prone, leaving Orpheus in near darkness to rend our hearts with “Che faro senza Euridice.”

All according to Gluck and his librettist, Cupid appears again, smiling with conviviality, magically bringing Euridice back to life so that the couple can live happily ever after. Importantly, that sets the scene for a lovely suite of dances, for which the performers now wear an assortment of informal modern clothes, carry each other chair-like, pair in ever-changing friendly combinations, and circle gently in a sense of loving community. Orpheus is led out, smiling for the first time all evening, and gets in the last singing words, about love and peace for all.

Pina Bausch version

Much more terrifying—or at least tragic—yet another example of how different generations present their own theatrical “take” on older stories, operas, and dances, is the staging that the German choreographer  Pina Bausch (1940-2009) directed and choreographed for Gluck’s opera, performed by the Paris Opera Ballet and filmed in 2008. The original production had been in 1975, and even for the French performances, a German translation was used for the singers.

The choreographer set herself a dual concept: to portray the grim story in dance, but to have each of the three solo vocalists perform almost as shadows; the musicians to offer the specific words and emotional impact of their music; the dancers to try and add another dimension by their movement. The audience, as with all theatrical presentations, is asked to suspend disbelief, for not only are there two figures to watch for each role; the solo singers are all women (no countertenor being enlisted). Musically, the dancers manage to have the phrasing of many of their movements somehow correspond to the phrasing of the music, and this seems to help the functioning of the double-roles somewhat.

The challenge here was that the dancers must move to specific words and rhythms and ideas provided by the singers, while the moving bodies convey more general emotions, since they are not meant to be miming the exact words. Difficult indeed, for the singers’ voices at moments seem sufficient to carry both the story and the emotion, and it is interesting that near the end, when Euridice dies a second time, the choreographer has put dancer Orpheus (previously pretty much non-stop in his fast and complicated movements) huddled in the corner motionless with his back to us, while singer Orpheus is the one who actually lifts up the lifeless body of Euridice in mourning.  So there may be limits to what dance movement can do to enlarge on what a specific text and vocal lines project, especially if the dancers are super-active.

However many ways Bausch may have experimented, the ending she chose seems consistent with the tragedy of Greek myth. Eros does not resuscitate Euridice; Apollo does not appear, but neither do the Bacchantes. Instead, it appears that Orpheus simply dies of grief, and the last tableau is of husband and wife both lifeless, on different sides of the stage. No festive dances. And so the story passed on from ancient times found yet another transformation.

John Neumeier and the Joffrey Ballet

The American choreographer John Neumeier (b. 1939) offered a truly beautiful staging of Gluck’s 1774 French Orphée et Eurydice through the co-production of the Joffrey Ballet, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Staatsoper Hamburg. It was telecast in 2019 as part of the PBS Great Performances series.

In this version, the lead role was sung by a superb Russian high tenor, Dmitry Korchak. The Canadian singer Andriana Churchman was Eurydice, and the American soprano Lauren Snouffer sang the part of Love. The opera’s excellent chorus was never seen, situated offstage with the orchestra, which was conducted by Harry Bicket. But the Joffrey’s 43 dancers were onstage at length, adding an amazing and newly fundamental aspect to the work.

John Neumeier (whose career has unfolded in Germany since 1963, though his training was in the United States, England, and Denmark) set his staging in a way that could suggest a contemporary ballet studio in any Western country. He used the musical overture to introduce Orpheus (in this production portrayed not as the traditional musician, but rather as a choreographer) rehearsing the accomplished dancers of the Joffrey Ballet, with the women on pointe, and with mirrors in the back just as in real studios. Eurydice, wife and star, rushes in late, and after a brief tiff with her husband Orpheus, she slaps him in the face, leaves, and dies by crashing her car into a tree.

From that point, the dancers take off their colorful rehearsal clothing, and the story progresses pretty much in line with Gluck’s version of the myth. The loving community (here, the dancers now wearing black) grieve with Orpheus, who is inconsolable. “Love” (wearing jeans and a modern informal jacket) is silent for much of the time, then suggests how the hero might retrieve his wife—if he was sure to obey Jupiter’s command of not looking back. (Somehow we easily accept the mix of myth and contemporary reality.)

Orpheus goes alone (as suggested here only in his imagination or dreams)  and as the clever scenery is manipulated, hands of the Furies poke out, and then they appear full force—with three men in reptile-like body suits and the other dancers in garb that somehow suggests Greek myth. Orpheus sings his heart out, and the threatening throng, calmed, allows him to go directly to the scene with the Blessed Spirits.

The section with the Blessed Spirits is the longest dance in the production, with both men and women in white costumes made of flowing fabric that allows their fluid and never-threatening movements to be seen as serene indeed. Neumeier’s setting and the Joffrey Ballet are beautiful, and when Eurydice appears as a shadow, she too enters into the style of the physical movement.

All according to the myth, husband leads wife away hopefully, through the openings of the ever-moving geometrical props. However, Eurydice laments that he is not looking and soon says she feels she is dying again. That does it. Orpheus rushes to her only to lose her again—this time forever.

Here is where Neumeier’s work departs from Gluck’s happy ending. The tenor sings most heart-breakingly, and when Love appears again singing the original French words, and when Eurydice reappears, the audience understands that this time Orpheus’s wife is there only in spirit. She wears a white veil, and when Orpheus takes it off, she disappears, and he is left with only the veil and his sorrow. However, the real-life choreographer Neumeier gives us a more realistic ending than Gluck had, by having the dramatic onstage choreographer again take up his place directing his dancers (mirroring the scene that had opened the opera), suggesting that the character Love and the memory of his beloved wife eventually helped Orpheus to continue living and doing things in real life, despite his sorrow never going away.

Eventually we all lose people we love, with no possibility of magical recapture. So the ending to this opera-ballet is surely something that audiences can connect with much more than with the “happily ever after” story as danced and sung in the 18th century productions of Gluck’s opera.

notes and explorations:

Classical style:

With Gluck followed soon by Mozart, it is time to mention that music historians generally give the label Classical with a capital C to the period roughly 1750-1830, notable for its formal symphonies and instrumental sonatas. With a small c, “classical” generally refers to concert music in contrast to lighter pieces. “Romantic” music could be considered to be, roughly 1830-1900, with less emphasis placed on formal structures, and more upon emotional expressivity—as in the works of Chopin, for example.

With dance history, however, the terms “classical” and “romantic” have vastly different chronological connotations. “Romantic” ballet would describe the early 19th century style discussed in the essay “Music for Women in White,” whereas “classic ballet” would imply the later 19th century styles especially developed with scores by Delibes and Tchaikovsky, for example, and with visual emphasis upon technical virtuosity in the execution of certain standard movements. 

Dame Janet Baker sings Orfeo: This is the Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1982 performance starring Dame Janet Baker. Raymond Lepparo conducts London Philharmonic Orchestra. Perhaps a good choice for an initial introduction to a more traditional performance. A DVD of the above performance is available on the Kultur label. Leading roles sung by Janet Baker, Elisabeth Speiser, and Elizabeth Gale. This was Dame Janet Baker’s farewell performance in opera.

Even though some viewers find both the DVD and the performance lacking something, critic Robert McKechnie called Dame Janet Baker “perfect” for the role of Orfeo and suggested: “For so many reasons, this is a production to savour. Intense performances of emotive music in classical settings: symbolism by the bucket load: theatrical gestures that make you almost cry out for joy.” For full review, in which the writer tries to figure out which scores were used, go to A 1988 review and tribute by John Rockwell in The New York Times about Dame Janet Baker, and a concert performance of Orfeo ed Euridice in New York. He characterized the lead: “But as Orfeo, there can be no quibbles: this is an impassioned, classically tragic statement of a part that defines operatic nobility and grief.”

other Orfeo performances: John Eliot Gardiner conducting performance at the Theatre de Chatelet in Paris, with Magdalena Kozena as Orpheus. Mostly sung against a plain blue backdrop. There are no dances in this production—obviously based on Gluck’s first version. Online viewers were ecstatic. Explains when the dances were added, 12 years after the premiere. Bottom line is the highest recommendation for the John Eliot Gardiner DVD—same as You Tube just described, on Image Entertainment label.  A modern Dance of the Furies done on a climbing wall! Lori Belilove and Isadora Duncan Dance. 2013. Music only, but conducted by René Jacobs, who had conducted full Monteverdi as well. This is a 5-minute video of Dance of the Blessed Spirits performed by Barbara Kane of the Isadora Duncan Dance Group with children in Japan, flute soloist accompanied by piano. This is the same music danced by an adult group, Duncan style, outside at Jacob’s Pillow, with recorded orchestral music.  Brief information from the Isadora Duncan Archives on the dancer Barbara Kane and the Blessed Spirits. Black and white performance of the Dance of the Furies.

Mark Morris production:  This is a link to Met on Demand, through which a  performance of Orfeo ed Eurydice can be seen online as choreographed by Mark Morris. Subtitles. This is a stunning performance in all respects—a “must see.” This is a brief but informative interview with Mark Morris before his production of Orfeo at the Met during 2010 season. Three pictures of the stunning performance directed by Mark Morris at the Metropolitan Opera. You can see how the chorus was positioned, and the dancers below. This is just a clip from the dance of the Furies from Mark Morris production at the Met, with his company dancing, and you can see how the chorus was staged and costumed. Brief interview of Mark Morris explaining how he works with music for his choreography.

singers: The mezzo soprano’s website so you can see what she looks like now and where she is singing lately. This is the sound of a natural countertenor singing aria from Gluck—the quality that the composer had in mind, singing Orfeo’s lament after Euridice dies again.

For information about the various adaptations of Gluck’s scores and the singers’ ranges involved, see The Grove Book of Operas, 2nd edition, edited by Stanley Sadie, revised by Laura Macy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp. 450-56.

Dance at the Metropolitan Opera:

A fascinating story that is not at all generally known is the account by George Dorris:  “Dance and the New York Opera War, 1906-1912” (Dance Chronicle, 32:195-262, 2009). Available for purchase online:

The article begins:

Although the Metropolitan Opera had had a ballet company since it opened in 1883, apart from opera ballets it had staged only occasional dance performances until, in 1906, the  company faced intense competition from Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera, resulting in large deficits. As part of the opera war the Met expanded its offerings and in 1909 opened a ballet school. It also imported Loie Fuller’s company and then Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin, who entranced audiences.

The writer proceeds to offer a detailed report about that early “dance boom,”  sprinkled with other names that are well known—including dancers Isadora Duncan and Enrico Cecchetti; conductor Arturo Toscanini, composer/conductor Gustav Mahler; and singers Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. He observes that after those few short years, things went back to the normal separation between audiences for dance and patrons of opera, and with dance onstage being limited to brief episodes within operas. But it is very interesting to read the documentation of salaries, and especially, the varying numbers of dancers under contract and the switch from mostly European dancers to those trained in America.

Skipping many decades, the situation with dancers at the Met was described to me in a 1987 interview with Ballet Master Donald Mahler. (See Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 143-45.) In that position, he choreographed ballets and was also able to present his company of 23 dancers in separate performances.  Although Donald Mahler derived much satisfaction from his work, yet there were also many challenges, and mixed feelings about the relationships between the opera’s musicians and dancers.

An alarming headline appeared in The New York Times in 2013: “Met Opera Dismantles Its Ballet in Buyouts.” To read the entire report, go to

This restructuring apparently was related to the diversity of choreographers being brought on board for various productions—for example, to such dancers as the Mark Morris Dance Group being included in Ofeo ed Euridice. And even before the “buyout,” the Met had from time to time enlisted the artistry of outstanding independent dance soloists such as Carmen de Lavallade (and before that, her cousin, ballerina Janet Collins).

A more recent perspective was provided by the Met’s Dance Director Joseph Fritz in a published interview:  Formerly a dancer onstage himself, Fritz recounts how he was promoted to casting and directing the Met’s dancers, and what his concerns are within the totality of opera productions.

Finally, for a suggestion of what goes on nowadays, in  August 2021 the Met issued a call for auditions for their forthcoming production of a brand-new version of the ancient Greek story. This one titled Eurydice with music commissioned from the American composer Matthew Aucoin, with a libretto based on the 2003 play by Sarah Ruhl. The choreographer’s talents are not in ballet, but rather Broadway show styles. The call for performers gave minimum information:

The choreographer, Denis Jones, is looking for Male Presenting Dancers & Female Presenting Dancers as well as Male Presenting Covers & Female Presenting Covers. Dancers should be versatile performers with exceptional ability in character, contemporary & jazz. Must also be exceptionally good with rhythmic phrasing. All ethnicities are strongly encouraged to apply. Zachary Woolfe pretty much panned the new opera. However he observed: “The dancing at Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding, a hint of pop music glimpsed through ominous shadows, is a little jewel.” Information about the new opera, with brief video clips. Clip of the starring  counter-tenor Jakub Jósef Orlinski demonstrating his break-dancing in front of the Met Opera at Lincoln Center. Brief intro about the counter-tenor/ break dancer, who portrays the “double” of Orpheus in the opera.  Orlinski, singer/break dancer  Here he is informally singing a Vivaldi aria.  a 2020 recital by this singer. article by Rebecca Mead about the countertenor.

Pina Bausch version:

DVD of Pina Bausch Orpheus und Eurydike with Paris National Opera, on Bel Air label. 2010 release.  This is a brief clip of the opening of Pina Bausch’s choreographic setting for Orpheus.  And this comes next—Act I where Orpheus is mourning. Singer in background performs the Gluck vocal part; male dancer’s movements set by choreographer Pina Bausch.  Clip of her setting for the Furies. Scene of the Blessed Spirits. Clip of intriguing 2006 film by Lee Yanor, “Coffee with Pina,” showing a glimpse of another, non-grim side of the choreographer. Review by Alastair Macaulay from The New York Times of July 22, 2012 regarding Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice.  Roslyn Sulcas review of Bausch’s setting for the Paris Opera Ballet, 2008 Pina Bausch foundation information.

Neumeier’s choreography: Brief clip of John Neumeier telling the story of the opera. More comments from Neumeier.  This is the full 2019 performance of John Neumeier’s version of Orphée et Eurydice as presented by PBS on Great Performances. Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Lyric Opera, with Harry Bicket conducting. Available only with Passport. But this performance is now available via Cmajor DVD.  March 12, 2018 positive review by music critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times of the Joffrey/L.A. Opera production of John Neumeier’s setting of the Gluck.  A 2017 review of the Lyric Opera performance, in the Chicago Tribune, by critic John von Rhien. Brief biography of the choreographer John Neumeier, who at this writing is still directing the Hamburg Ballet.  Link to information of Hamburg production, with a few clips and narrator giving synopsis. This is a link to the foundation established in 2006 with the mission to preserve John Neumeier’s work and collections. 2015 Kyoto Prize commemorative lecture by choreographer John Neumeier in which he traces his development as a choreographer. He also expresses his opinions about choreography not existing as a separate thing, unlike a painting, for example. Since each performance is ever-changing, he suggests that “dance speaks only in the present tense.” He values film as a separate genre of art—but never a substitute for watching a living dance performance. Importantly, he considers his work as a choreographer  (of over 150 ballets) to “give emotional shape to the truth of a character.” He has been deeply moved by the spiritual power of some music, for instance Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which he choreographed and his company performed in 1986 in Hiroshima with emotions towards peace and reconciliation.

Don Juan, Gluck’s ballet

The 1761 Gluck-Angiolini collaboration for their full-length Don Juan, or the Stone Statue’s Banquet, was a landmark in the history of ballet. Unfortunately there are at present no DVDs of any entire performance that would convey the flavor of the 18th-century style. However, Don Juan certainly merits some information here, and glad to report, there are a number of excellent CDs of the music, some performed on period instruments.

The story had been presented dramatically in Spain in by Tirso de Molino. It was used later in France in 1665 by Molière. But of course the theatrical version produced most often for several centuries and most familiar in our own time is the 1787 opera Don Giovanni with music by Mozart.

The plot of the Gluck-Angiolini ballet very briefly is this: an aristocratic Don Juan is challenged to a duel by the Commandant (the objecting father of his mistress) and kills him. He is a philanderer and continues flirting with other women. In an unprecedented scene, Don Juan holds a feast, during which a stone statue of the Commandant knocks at the door and invites Don Juan to join him for dinner at his tomb. The last scene, which surprised the initial audiences no end, showed the stone statue urging the scoffing Don Juan to repent—to no avail. And so in the last, four-minute episode, all hell literally broke loose, with devils flying around holding torches. The furious music in a minor key gradually descended into the lower registers of the strings, along with a diminuendo in volume, then suddenly ended with a quiet major chord. The gates of hell closed up, and that was the end of Don Juan! But not the end of the scene’s music; as mentioned already, Gluck reused his hellish sounds from Don Juan for his subsequent dance of the Furies in Orpheus and Euridice.

While Gluck’s original manuscript for Don Juan apparently has not  survived, there fortunately was a subsequent publication, and the score today is available in reprint or online at the link provided below. Scored for flutes, oboes, trumpets, trombone, and strings, in contemporary recordings instruments used also include, bassoon, timpani, and harpsichord.

Listening to the 32 sections of music without benefit of visual onstage performance, it is yet possible to imagine something of the impression that might have been made by the 18th century dancers upon their surprised audiences who previously were likely used to a calm semblance of court dances. However, in this ballet-pantomime, the performers did dance to several familiar ballroom forms, including minuet, gavotte, contredanse, and fandango. One section with dotted 6/8 rhythms reminds one of forlane dance music.

The musical sections are quite short—mostly between one and two minutes, but some less than a minute. The gracious-sounding episodes presented with predominately strings are contrasted with dramatic suggestions, for instance a long oboe solo in minor key, or very loud declarations doubled at several octaves. There are some pregnant pauses, and various string techniques are used to evoke varying moods. For instance, one section features string staccato that fittingly suggests a strutting Don Juan. The fandango music easily conjures up defiant chin-up poses. Traditional tremolos suggest trepidation, and rapid figurations or allegro furioso scales punctuated by loud chords contribute to the drama, including at one point servants scurrying back and forth and guests leaving uneasily. Dotted rhythms distinguish a number of the musical sections, and the juxtaposition of contrasting musical phrases strike one as a form of “Q and A” in the intense dramatic interplay between characters, especially as the stone statue offers Don Juan a last chance to repent and save his soul. By the time the final largo and chaconne are played, the music strongly conveys terror  as the denouement of the plot takes place visually, punctuated by strident forte blasts from the brass.

David Hurwitz, in his article titled “Gluck’s Bold Move,”  had the sub-headline “The composer’s Don Juan bridged the Baroque and Classical periods in explosive fashion,” then began:

If you had to put your finger on the point when the ornate, courtly musical style of the Baroque period yielded to the simpler, more directly expressive approach that we now call “Classical,” a good bet would be 1761. That was the year Christoph Willibald Gluck, a successful but by no means revolutionary forty-seven year-old composer living in Vienna, created a sensation with his ballet Don Juan….

His dance numbers are short, punchy and colorful. There’s a marvelous Spanish-sounding fandango, one of the earliest examples by a non-Spanish composer, and plenty of delectable orchestration.

But what really makes Don Juan the standout piece of its era is the concluding pair of movements, a creepy Larghetto leading to a wild final Chaconne. In these two pieces, Gluck essentially invents what we would today call “horror movie music.”…Gluck wanted to scare the living daylights out of his audience.

It is precisely that same Chaconne which Gluck plucked out of his ballet score and inserted into his 1774 French version of Orpheus and Eurydice for the dance of the Furies.


Don Juan performances:  From the Esterházy Palace, 2014 film of Giovanni Antonini conducting chamber orchestra (standing) with some period instruments (natural horns and wooden oboes), in unusual performance of Gluck’s ballet Don Juan.  Very dramatic! 23 minutes.  Gianandrea Noseda conducting a larger orchestra in Gluck’s ballet music for Don Juan. 2021.  Brief fandango as choreographed by Marie-Genevieve Massi. Gives an idea of the tense formality in the plot!

There is an excellent CD on apex label with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists performing on period instruments.  And on SONY CD, Tafelmusik musicians are also playing on period instruments, conducted by Bruno Weil. Finally, Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields can be heard on a Decca recording that has 17 sections.

further information:

David Hurwitz article in Listen: Life with Classical Music, Sept.-Oct. 2009 pp. 21-22.  Brief information about the choreographer’s career. For a longer biography see the IED entry by Gerhard Croll

There is a surprise of a complete clear hand-copied manuscript of the score available for free download at MusOpen:

Complete score to the ballet plus instrumental parts are available from Kalmus.

For information about various choreography to Gluck’s ballet music, see Ingrid Brainard’s entry for Don Juan in the IED.

We don’t have definite facts about Gluck’s earliest experiences with dance and ballet. Nicolas Slonimsky’s 8th edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (1991, p. 637) reported that Gluck went to Prague as a teenager and earned his living playing violin and cello for social dances. Later, in Vienna after he replaced the composer Joseph Starzer (who had created many ballet scores especially with the choreographer Franz Hilverding), it is possible that Gluck started contributing uncredited music for ballet sections of stage productions. We do know for sure that in addition to his 1761 score for Don Juan, Gluck composed a 1765 tragic ballet, Semiramis, in 14 parts; a 1770 ballet titled Alexanderfest as well as The Prince from China in 5 acts.

In his Grove Music/ Oxford Music Online article on Gluck ( paragraph 10, accessed 08/17/2008) music historian Bruce Alan Brown suggested:

The extent of Gluck’s involvement in this area is still unclear, for unlike choreographers, composers of music for repertory ballets at this time are rarely named in printed sources, or even in music manuscripts, even though their identities were widely known….

Gluck was required to compose music for ballets in several different sub-genres, from simple divertissements and commedia dell’arte farces to mythological and pantomime ballets on well-developed plots….

Don Juan, first given in October 1761, was perhaps the first complete drama in dance on the modern stage…in this work, for the first time, the music was fully equal to the choreography in ambitiousness and quality.

For more details, see Bruce Alan Brown’s scholarly book Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna (Oxford University Press, 1991). His Appendix includes credit for Gluck as composer under a surprising 83 listings for ballets in the repertoire of Vienna theaters 1752-1765. However, most of the attributions are in brackets to indicate that they depended on theatrical payment records alone. For information about Don Juan, see chapter 8, especially pp. 315-26, with an outline of the action in relation to the musical score, plus consideration of an original longer score from which the choreographer Angiolini seems to have made final selections for his staging. Brown comments (p. 321):

The musical losses resulting from Angiolini’s leaner plan were not insignificant. They included…dances of outstanding rhythmic vitality, even miniature dramas….Not surprisingly, as early as the eighteenth century there were attempts to restore some of what Angiolini had cut.

Chapter 9 of the book deals with Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.

A Satiric Side Trip

Orpheus in the Underworld is an operetta that was composed by Jacques Offenbach in 1858, revised to be in four acts for performance in Paris in 1874, with dances included. (An operetta, in contrast to grand opera, was usually on lighter themes, and included spoken dialogue in contrast to the totally sung recitatives of opera.)

Based on classical mythology, the operetta libretto was by Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy, and the plot is slightly crazy, starting with the fact that the married couple Orpheus and Eurydice don’t get along at all. She can’t stand his violin playing, for openers. He knows about her lover and lays a trap for her to walk where she is bitten by a snake. Her “lover” reveals himself as Pluto, who takes Eurydice away. Orpheus rejoices in his freedom! However, the self-righteous character actually called “Public Opinion” dictates that he must go after his dead wife.

The story continues, with interesting action such as Jupiter being transformed into a fly so that he can fit through the keyhole of the door behind  which Eurydice is being held. But for the purposes of becoming acquainted with “famous ballet music,” it can be pointed out that the danced infernal galop is very well-known  indeed, though  familiar  to  most people  as  a  can-can  (which had begun as an incongruous menuet).  The tunes appear also in the overture—and there are quite a few You Tube recordings that can be heard. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any DVDs that would epitomize the kind of stage production from Offenbach’s time, but there are several “modernized” stagings.

notes and explorations:

Offenbach’s operetta: This gives a good synopsis of the plot, a photo of Offenbach, and a little background about the performances. This is an unexpected and lovely performance by a Slovenian student orchestra—the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra—of just the Offenbach overture. Recorded in 2012 for their Christmas concert. Many listeners will likely recognize the main melodies, quite beautifully played! Again, just the overture, this time performed by the New York Philharmonic in 2011 under conductor Zubin Mehta.

some enjoyable performances: Full performance in modern dress in English translation, at Hartt School of Music in 2016. (1 hour 46 minutes). Singer Orpheus also as talented violinist plays famous solo onstage. Amusing use of multi-media. Listen in Euridice’s aria for such words as “Oh death, where is thy sting?” or “Dear Orpheus: I am dead, so I won’t be home for dinner. There are some cold leftovers in the refrigerator.” That gives a clue to the good-humored updating here. Most enjoyable! Dances: balletic group in Act I with Mercury; Pluto in Hades with followers (to version of the galop); “stage within the stage” while gods & goddesses are in Hades; Jupiter with Folies-style women who of course do famous can-can near the end. Important action is all in the last five minutes, with lightning bolts causing Orpheus to look back, thereby enabling Jupiter to dedicate Euridice as a priestess of Bacchus. Just the erotic Jupiter as fly scene. See following DVD. Option of viewing the performance online, by subscription only.

DVD: Art Haus, 2014 National Opera of Lyon filmed in 1997. Conductor, Marc Minkowski. Eurydice, Natalie Dessay.Ballet of Grand-Theater of Geneva. Violin soloist onstage. Ballet dancers both women and men in tutus and pointe shoes; later rather free-for-all instead of an actual menuet, and not the usual infernal galop. Clever pillow scene for sleepy residents of Mt. Olympus. Solo singers and chorus excellent.

DVD: 2002 release Theatre de Monnaie in Brussels. Image Entertainment label. Set in 19th century Paris. In French, with subtitles. Until the end, there are really no big dance segments, but choreographed movement does add to the overall opera—which is stupendously mounted and sung. The role of Euridice is especially demanding, and this soprano (Elizabeth Vidal) certainly delivers. Instead of musical recitatives, there is spoken dialogue between the arias. Recommended. Choreographers were Andrew George and Sylvia Printemps. Conductor, Patrick Davin.

In 1938 Leonid Massine combined various musical excerpts from Offenbach for his Gaité Parisienne, including the famous cancan. American Ballet Theatre revived it in 1970 with glamorous costumes by Christian Lacroix. Here is a clip from the Boston Ballet’s performance:

Offenbach’s ballet:

Though Offenbach’s operettas include many delightful and beautiful dances, his only full-length ballet was Le Papillon, (The Butterfly), choreographed by Marie Taglioni for her protégée Emma Livry. The ballet was premiered by the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1860, with Louis Mérante portraying the prince, who of course marries the princess at the end. The original plot is very complicated and can be read at

In 1874 Petipa made his own version, but with music by Minkus, and in 1979 Ronald Hynd presented his choreography for the Houston Ballet, with the original score updated by John Lanchbery, and the story considerably changed. This version can be seen online at: Performance by the Santiago Ballet. Anna Kisselgoff’s review in The New York Times, explaining how Hynd changed the plot.

The musical performance of the Offenbach score alone is available on a London CD with Richard Bonynge conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. It can be heard online at

The score is very specific to the dramatic action (which is probably the reason we rarely hear or see this work nowadays). But it has beautiful orchestratiion, lovely pas-de-deux melodies, lively mazurkas, and other very danceable sections. One can easily imagine onstage activity and characters.


The opera scores that Monteverdi and Gluck composed based on the Orpheus myth were staged by many musicians and dancers over time. In contrast, the 20th century ballet to be discussed next had one version: one score; one choreographic setting that is widely known.  And for the time being, one available DVD starring two of the original dancers, Nicholas Magallanes and Francisco Moncion, plus Violette Verdy portraying Eurydice. The conductor for that performance was New York City Ballet’s own Robert Irving.

Orpheus as developed for a theatrical ballet by Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine was premiered by the commissioning Ballet Society in New York in 1948, with abstract scenery and costumes by Isamu Noguchi (an artist also known for his work for modern dancer Martha Graham). The starring dancers were Nicholas Magallanes as Orpheus; Maria Tallchief as Eurydice; Francisco Moncion as the Dark Angel; Beatrice Tompkins as the leader of the Furies; Tanaquil LeClercq as the leader of the Bacchantes; Herbert Bliss as Apollo; and a total cast of 30 dancers.

For this balletic version, the story starts after Eurydice has already died, and Orpheus is grieving mightily. A Dark Angel offers to suspend the bonds of death so that Orpheus could visit Hades and bring Eurydice back to life. Along the way, the music plucked by Orpheus (with help from the Dark Angel) serves to calm the Furies as well as various characters in Hades who cease their punishment tasks; and Pluto himself is softened to bring Eurydice forward. The Dark Angel leads the way back to Earth, holding the magical lyre, and the eyes of Orpheus are masked to prevent him seeing Eurydice until they reach the upper world again.

Although according to the myth Orpheus is just forgetful and can’t wait to see Eurydice, in this production Eurydice also is tormented by his not looking at her and complains bitterly through her entwining physical movements, accompanied by music that is sweetly imploring. Orpheus tears off the mask, and Eurydice immediately falls and is dragged behind a billowing curtain, and that is the last that Orpheus will ever see of her. Muted brass sound doom. The fate of Orpheus is to be torn to shreds by the Bacchantes, and the final scene is with Apollo mourning, while a suggestion of the opening harp theme is heard, with two horn melodic lines bumping into each other. No Elysian fields; no happy reunion; no going up to heaven with Apollo on a cloud; no miraculous cure by Cupid. But from behind the mound where Orpheus had last been seen, there rises a vine, with the lyre hanging down, forever.

the musical score

Stravinsky’s music begins with the very beautiful harp sounds in a slow, riveting single-note melody. Gradually the orchestra’s strings enter, and as a satyr and some wood sprites emerge onstage, the music changes with busy instrumental stabs and declamations, often with the lower strings providing insistent impetus for moving feet by playing repeated pitches, sometimes with higher strings providing that steady motor-like impelling beat that Balanchine valued so much in this composer’s music. Sometimes the music sounds vague and wandering—not really anything that conveys specific dramatic action if not experienced by actually seeing the ballet movement unfold. Some definite musical sections relate closely to the story, and the few stark symbolic props against a plain background serve to focus attention on the dance and the sound.

The composer made use of some ostinato patterns (brief motifs repeated as underlying support). And while the score certainly is not “atonal” as part of Stravinsky’s later Agon would be, there are jagged melodies with large leaps in pitch, and jarring dissonances that serve to point up the grim aspects of the story. Late in the score you may scratch your head for a few moments: hey, doesn’t that little bit sound like Petrouchka? Oh well, same composer. But how did those few jazzy moments get in there? For the Furies? Perhaps! It all leads to the end, with a reminder of that beautiful, mournful opening harp solo now with two horn melodies bumping into each other.

earlier in New York

Balanchine’s setting of Stravinsky’s music was not his first experience in staging this myth. In 1936, the Metropolitan Opera (with which the choreographer had a less-than-wonderful relationship), offered to host a new production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice choreographed by Balanchine, danced by members of his company at the time called American Ballet, and with decor and costumes by the well-known artist Pavel Tchelitchev. The plan was for the singers to be in the orchestra pit. It would be a surrealistic concept. But it was the music that was Balanchine’s deep inspiration. His biographer Bernard Taper reported:

…the voice to which he gave most heed was that of Christoph Willibald Gluck—poignant, passionate, grave, and noble. Orpheus and Eurydice had long been perhaps his favorite of all operas. For Gluck’s music, Balanchine created, in [Lincoln] Kirstein’s words, some of his “most accomplished erotic patterns, touching and electric encounters, and noble plastic groups.”

Lew Christensen portrayed Orpheus. All the dancers gave their all. But the Met did not consider this version a winner and allowed only two performances in the aftermath of what Taper generalized as “titters, yawns, scowls of frigid disapproval, and polite applause” on the part of the audience.

Nevertheless, this contrary opinion was published in Time magazine in a letter from Glenway Wescott, who thought Balanchine’s ballet was:

…the only original undertaking of the opera association this season….By virtue of the strange new scenes and 20th-Century dances, I was more deeply moved by the old myth and music than ever before. If I were to make a list of the dozen most exciting and inspiring things I have seen in the theatre, three of his choreographic works would be on it: Apollon Musagète and The Prodigal Son and Errante.

The following season Balanchine and his company had an opportunity to redeem their reputations, for the Met presented a Stravinsky-Balanchine festival featuring Apollo and two brand-new ballets: Le Baiser de la Fée and Card Game (commissioned from Stravinsky). Card Game required a 70 piece orchestra, which for the occasion was drawn from members of the New York Philharmonic. Stravinsky himself conducted. Audience members and critics alike found the evening a brilliant success. Nevertheless, Balanchine and the Met parted company, and in 1938 the American Ballet—as in a card game—also folded.

 later success

However, by 1947 the new company that Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine had managed to found, Ballet Society, was commissioning a new Orpheus score, from Stravinsky. In contrast to his Orpheus and Eurydice at the Met, Balanchine found that his work on the new version was indeed satisfying, and the collaboration proved to be a congenial one. According to Taper the two artists had as a model the Monteverdi opera, which Stravinsky studied closely, and it was also the composer’s idea to introduce the character of the Dark Angel, who along with Orpheus strummed the lyre as they walked. The sets, props, and costumes by Noguchi lent a kind of abstract timeless quality to the theatrical production, and Balanchine’s choreography this time combined mime, gesture, classical ballet, and a sense of modern dance style.

After the premiere, the tough critic of The New York Times, John Martin, hailed the new ballet as a masterpiece and went on to comment that “Mr. Stravinsky’s music must certainly rank with the finest he has ever done for the theatre.” Overall, he found it “A memorable work, a memorable production and a memorable example of real theatre collaboration.”

The production proved to be a turning point in the lives of Balanchine and his dancers, for the chairman of City Center’s finance committee soon was able to offer that Ballet Society change its name to the New York City Ballet and perform at City Center—which they did for many years.


notes and explorations:

score: This is Stravinsky’s score to Orpheus, shown along with the recording by the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. 30 minutes. The score is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

DVD: Black and white DVD complete performance on Visual Artists International 2014 release of the 1960 filming by Radio Canada in Montreal. From the series New York City Ballet in Montreal, Vol 1. With brief interview of the choreographer. Performed by Nicholas Magallanes, Violette Verdy, Francisco Moncion, Roy Tobias, and Judith Green.

online clip:  A very brief less than 2 minute excerpt from the performance described above.


Quotations and information from Bernard Taper, Balanchine: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987 edition) pp. 171, 173, 221.

John Martin review, The New York Times, May 16, 1948, “The Dance: Orpheus—Ballet Society Presents a Masterpiece.” And in the January 17, 1949 paper, John Martin went even further, saying “Certainly this is one of the great works of our time.”

For a brief recollection of what it was like to work with Balanchine and give the initial performances of Orpheus,see Maria Tallchief (with Larry Kaplan), Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, chapter 6, pp. 94-100.) On p. 100 she called Orpheus  “a magical ballet that touches the soul.”

A chapter of Charles M. Joseph’s book Stravinsky and Balanchine is devoted to “Passage to Orpheus” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). The author describes the collaboration, which was mostly centered around timing; the many revisions that Stravinsky made to accommodate the dance; the choice of artist for scenery and costume (and how Stravinsky had objections just two days before the premiere); the composer’s avid promotion of his own works and radio performance of excerpts even before the ballet’s premiere; the inaccuracy of published scores because they do not include Stravinsky’s later corrections and changes; Lincoln Kirstein’s concern to try and assure contractually that no competing ballet company could perform to the score for a time (since Ballet Society was paying the commission); and finally, brief observations about alternative endings that appear in various Greek sources for the myth.  Information about Kenneth MacMillan’s 1982 choreographic setting to Stravinsky’s score. Further information can be found in Jann Parry, Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan(London: Faber & Faber paperback, 2010) pp. 557-61. The biographer suggested [p. 559] that “MacMillan wanted the production to look disturbingly strange, both futuristic and classically timeless.” The designer had made Apollo look like a metal robot—for openers. In any case, there were not too many performances; sets were destroyed. The ballet is not performed nowadays.  A 2009 review of how John Neumeier combined Stravinsky’s scores to Apollo and Orpheus. Article by Horst Koegler. He ends by commenting:

Though I cannot say that Neumeier´s amalgamation of the two Stravinsky- ballets “Apollon musagète” and “Orpheus” matches the sublime beauty of Balanchine´s choreography, I left the Hamburg opera-house on these two nights deeply moved, hardly finding the words to express how deeply the performance had touched my innermost emotions – not at least through the total involvement and engagement of all the artists participating in this tour de force of theatrical magic.

…And so the story of Orpheus continues to be reinvented for theatrical ballet in our own time.

other versions of Orpheus:

The 1959 award-winning  film of Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro is available on a Janus DVD with English subtitles for the Portuguese soundtrack, or alternate dubbed English. Second disc includes interviews and a lengthy documentary about the impact of the film’s bossa nova music and the changes in the life of the city’s slums. From its first minutes, Black Orpheus offers amazing physical dancing, drumming and singing, plus a slice of Carnaval club performances and a gripping story with many symbols of the traditional myth—even down to Cerberus the dog gatekeeper in Hell and an attacking Fury at the end. All now transferred to Brazil. Inspired by a play by the poet Vinicius de Morales, the film was scripted by Jacques Viot. Orpheus was acted by Bruno Mello, a former soccer player, and Euridice was portrayed by Marpessa Dawn, an American from Pittsburgh who had been in Katherine Dunham’s dance company. Highly recommended! Option of watching the film online via amazon.    Anthony Tommasini’s 2007 review “Four Trips to Hell and Back at the Opera” in which he reported on the Glimmerglass Opera productions in Cooperstown, NY featuring Monteverdi, Gluck, Offenbach, and the 1993 opera by Philip Glass. The reviewer called this last work “the surprise hit: a rich, complex and challenging experience,” going on to describe the score:

It is run through with honky-tonk, jazzy bits and ancient modal lyricism, percolating with rhythmic riffs that often break into asymmetrical patterns and keep you off guard. The vocal writing is sometimes like pitched speech. But that only enhances the austere ritualism of the music. There are many clips online of excerpts from the Glass opera. This is 13 minutes from a San Francisco production in 2011.

Anaïs Mitchell created a folk musical in 2010, Hadestown, featuring blues and jazz. Clips from 2019 Broadway musical of  Hadestown followed by singing by its creator Anaïs Mitchell, who also describes the beginnings of her creative work. This 55-minute program also features several cast members singing excerpts. There is no DVD available yet, but there is a 2-CD cast recording with a booklet that has all the words. Jesse Green’s review of the Broadway opening will give you more details of the plot.
An informative 2021 documentary written by Brenda Henderson: Hadestown: A History of Defiance. Chronicles the daunting gestation of Anais Mitchell’s folk opera from its first 2006 production in Vermont through its many versions, up until it reached Broadway in 2019, was nominated for 14 Tony awards, and garnered 8. The cast album won a Grammy in 2022, and the show continues to play to enthusiastic audiences on Broadway, in addition to being scheduled on tour in multiple theaters around the country. For even more references to further works based on the myth.