Which Orpheus operas should I see?

Have you been wondering which of our Orpheus Series operas you should be going to see?

It’s a little daunting picking between four operas with similar names, but a little clarification might be useful before picking one (or more!) to book for.

We’ll be taking a look at each opera, the type of music you might expect, and have a look at an aria/song from each that you can have a listen to.

In order of opening night:

Orpheus and Eurydice

Orpheus and Eurydice

Gluck’s 1762 elegant chamber opera portrays the ‘classic’ myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

As with many Orpheus-based operas, Gluck broke the mould with his score, creating a more dynamic score influenced by the French music of the period. Less of the unaccompanied recitatives, more of the actual plot. This made for a faster moving plot, with little extraneous music – a welcome change to the audiences of the time!

Originally written in Italian, our performance utilises the version of the opera rewritten by Hector Berlioz in 1859, intended to cast renowned mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot in the role of Orpheus (a part originally written for a male contralto), as well as making significant changes to Gluck’s orchestration.

Find out more in our Introductory Guide

The music is indicative of eighteenth century opera, whilst having more of a focus on the excitement and drama of the story (and less on the ego of the performer). It also falls into a genre known as azione teatrale (‘theatrical action’), known for depiction of mythological matters and usually featured dance extensively – which given our production is choreographed by the award-winning Wayne McGregor, you can expect a spectacle. Often regarded as the ‘classic’ Orpheus opera, Orpheus and Eurydice truly is the work that all others are compared to.

The passionate climax of the opera, Orpheus ignores the warning of Amor – turning and embracing Euridice in his arms, who immediately dies. As Orpheus cradles her lifeless body, he laments ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ (I have lost my Eurydice), delivering a sublime depiction of the grief felt by Orpheus in that moment.

Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice is for you if:

You’re looking for a by the book retelling of the classic fable, with music that mirrors the tragedy of the events with noble simplicity.

Orpheus in the Underworld

A slight change of mood from Gluck’s work, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux Enfers) goes for a different tack: one of riotous comedy.

Debuted at the Bouffes-Parisiens in 1858, Offenbach parodies both the myth and previous Orphic operas (including Gluck’s!), while satirising political matters of the time.

The score is startlingly comedic, full of catchy tunes, witty arias and satirical musical quotations. Most notably for modern listeners, Orpheus in the Underworld marks the origin of the ‘Can-can’. Originally titled the ‘Galop infernal’, the tune turns up in the final act as the characters mock Jupiter’s dancing of a minuet. The Can-can has become a widely used piece of music in different forms of media; follow the following link to find out more about its use in film and TV.

Read our beginner’s guide to Operetta   Read our introduction to the opera

Much more of a light-hearted romp than other Orphic operas, Orpheus in the Underworld makes light of the drama for comedy. Emma Rice’s technicolour interpretation of this classic promises vivacious spectacles and every bit of witty repartee Offenbach intended.

In the second act of the opera, Jupiter searches for Eurydice, whom he is enamoured with. Finding her, he transforms into a fly. Eurydice immediately takes a liking to the fly, and they sing a duet together, involving a ridiculous costume and even more ridiculous fly impressions.

Orpheus in the Underworld is for you if:

You want a funny interpretration of the myth, with recognisable music.

The Mask of Orpheus

Truly a gem in operatic history, Birtwistle’s opera premiered at English National Opera in 1986 and was declared a masterpiece of contemporary opera.

Far from being a linear plot, The Mask of Orpheus deconstructs (sometimes quite literally) the plot of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld.

With each of the three primary characters (Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus) represented by a singer, a mime and a puppet (taking the character’s mortal, heroic and mythical aspects respectively), Birtwistle uses the opera to dissect several different takes on the myth we all ‘know’. Does Orpheus die by Zeus’s thunderbolt? Or does he perish at the hands of Dionysus’s followers? What led up to, and what followed, Eurydice’s death?

Read our introduction to the opera

Using an atypical orchestra (consisting of wind, percussion and plucked instruments, as well as tape, sampler and a small chorus), Birtwistle portrays the myth of Orpheus in a haunting and reverential light, while breaking down every facet and retelling.

The original 1986 staging continues to be regarded as one of the jewels in the crown of ENO’s storied history. Our new production is directed by Daniel Kramer and conducted by Music Director Martyn Brabbins, as well as lavish costume design by Daniel Lismore. Do you really want to miss it?

The first aria in the opera featuring Orpheus, ‘The First Poem of Reminiscence’s ethereal and meditative atmosphere forms the background of the scene, to which Orpheus recalls the trials of the Argonauts amid non-vocal cries. The non-traditional atmosphere is typical of the score, utilising an atypical orchestra and electronics in its soundscape.

The Mask of Orpheus is for you if:

You like contemporary opera, or relish the opportunity to see a rarity on the stage.

Orphée

Our most contemporary take on the Orpheus myth, Philip Glass’s 1991 opera Orphée takes a drastically different route: adapting Jean Cocteau’s 1950 French film of the same name, the central entry of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy.

With a setting of contemporary Paris, the film portrayed Orpheus as a poet (instead of the classical depiction of a musician), who develops a relationship with the enigmatic Princess, while his wife Eurydice is with child and garners the attentions of the Princess’s protégé and fellow poet, Cégeste.

Considering the libretto for Glass’s Orphée is taken from the screenplay of the film – at many points verbatim – our production (helmed by world-leading multimedia artist Netia Jones) aims to delve into the dangers of self-obsession, and its effects on those around them.

Read our introduction to the opera

At once a ‘conventional chamber opera’ and typical of Philip Glass’s output, the score is full of striking motifs, murmurous harmonies and rich writing. Glass is one of the leading composers of minimalism, describing his style as ‘music with repetitive structures’. His mastery of the genre leads to exciting and beautiful soundscapes, putting the struggles and strife of the characters at centre-stage with remarkable beauty.

Read our beginner’s guide to Philip Glass

After our well-loved productions of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and the Olivier Award winning Akhnaten, Orphée’s intense blend of theatre, opera and film promises an enthralling experience.

In a scene involving Orpheus, the Princess, Heurtebise and Cégeste, this pure and simple ensemble piece depicts the turmoil of emotions when Orpheus returns to the Princess (who he previously has fallen for) in death. The Princess decides to die herself, leading to the reincarnation of Orpheus as an “immortal poet”. With a repetitive backing letting the drama take centre stage, the music slowly swells to its emotionally turbulent conclusion.

Orphée is for you if:

You’re a film buff who likes a multimedia approach to art and opera, or love the music of Philip Glass.