Past and Present, the Orpheus Myth Makes Us Rethink Music

Mauro Borgioni in the title role of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.

MILAN — On a recent evening at the Teatro alla Scala here, I watched an audience of well-heeled Milanese be turned, briefly, into gods.

The tenor Juan Diego Flórez, as the male lead in Gluck’s “Orphée et Eurydice,” was hoping to lead his dead wife back to the world of the living, and had just been told he could sing his way past the guardians of the underworld.

“L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,” Mr. Flórez sang: “Hope rekindles in my soul.” He ornamented the jubilant tune with dizzying runs and rapid-fire flourishes. When he was done, the audience erupted in a stormy ovation that lasted several minutes. The tale of Orpheus, whose song softens the hearts of the haughtiest deities, morphed into the spectacle of the famously demanding La Scala patrons, sitting in judgment on operatic superstars.

The following afternoon, I took in a performance of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy. This time the audience sat spellbound as Mauro Borgioni poured his velvety baritone into “Possente spirto,” a showpiece full of the artful shudders, particular to early Baroque singing, that sound like a voice racked with sobs. His singing was interspersed with florid solos from members of the orchestra, so that the virtuosity spread across instruments and suggested a hero-singer of boundless gifts.

And yet Orpheus’s musical powers fail him when it matters: Forgetting the divine injunction against turning around to look at Eurydice as they leave the underworld, he lets his gaze fall on her, condemning his bride to a second death. According to one version of the Greek myth, Orpheus is torn to bits, with his disembodied head crying out Eurydice’s name.

The question of who is wooed by the power of music continued to linger in my mind after my weekend of Orphean operas. I found myself thinking about how the story and its subtexts are magnified in settings by contemporary opera composers, in a world where music is omnipresent and is regularly, well, instrumentalized for all sorts of impure purposes. The ideal of persuasive song must surely change in a world where music can be used to boost consumption, drive away teenage loiterers, or soften up detainees for interrogation. As in the story of Orpheus, magic and mastery are never far removed from control and ego.

On May 6 and 7, New Yorkers can reflect on some of these issues, too, when MasterVoices and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s present Gluck’s Italian-language version of his opera, “Orfeo ed Euridice,” along with Matthew Aucoin’s “The Orphic Moment,” written in 2014.

The subject of Mr. Aucoin’s work is what he calls the “dark heart” of the story: the moment before Orpheus turns around and loses his wife a second time. “To me there seems to be something cold in the way the second death seems like an excuse for more music,” Mr. Aucoin said in a phone interview. “It leaves me thinking — in a distressed way as a composer — of music being valued over love.”

Any opera about Orpheus, the musical icon of Greek mythology, is always also about opera itself. Monteverdi wrote his “Orfeo” in 1607, seven years after Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice,” one of opera’s founding works. Making the case for the then-radical concept of sung drama, both pieces turned to a myth that puts music at the center of the action and provides plenty of excuses for “actual” singing — what is known as diegetic music. Gluck then turned to the story when he set out to reform the genre from what he saw as the excesses of opera seria.

But as the musicologist Tim Carter told me in a phone conversation, political subtexts were always acknowledged. “The story is also one of how music can be abused either by individuals or by state mechanisms,” he said. “Monteverdi is a composer, so he’s clearly out there to make a point about how wonderful his music is. But even so there are moments in his ‘Orfeo’ where there’s an edge of warning: ‘Be a bit careful, because music is really powerful. But power is dangerous stuff.’ ”

A survey of Orphean operas shows a curious drop in the 19th century, followed by a resurgence of interest following World War I. It can be no accident that composers including Darius Milhaud, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze and Harrison Birtwistle turned to it. For all their differences and for all their bucking of conventions, each of their treatments was also a plea for the continued validity of opera as it drifted from mainstream culture.

A similar energy seems to infuse other operas in which music plays a significant role, including Kaija Saariaho’s troubadour-themed “L’Amour du Loin.” In a phone interview, Ms. Saariaho said that Orpheus had not entered her mind when she was working on the opera, but that she had been attracted to a story where music was the central subject matter while also functioning as “a metaphor for many other things.”

In order to set apart the diegetic music of the troubadour, she created a special mode that evokes medieval music. But his music is only ever heard as sung by a pilgrim.

“We don’t know, in fact, if it is really as he wanted it to be,” Ms. Saariaho said. Thus the troubadour raises issues of interpretation, dissemination and perhaps even corruption that are ultimately the concerns of a creative artist. “Maybe I’m also reflecting my aims as a composer,” Ms. Saariaho added.

For Mr. Birtwistle, Orpheus has been something of an obsession. The character pops up in a song cycle based on Rilke sonnets, and in the operas “The Mask of Orpheus,” “The Second Mrs. Kong” and “The Corridor.” That last work, like Mr. Aucoin’s piece, zooms in on the moment before the hero’s fatal turn. In a phone conversation, Mr. Birtwistle said that the fact that the myth was so well known allowed him to be innovative in his settings.

In his “Orpheus Elegies” for oboe, harp and countertenor, Mr. Birtwistle said, he “fractured the language” until it became subordinate to the music. “In a sense, the subject matter is the vehicle for music,” he said. In his four-hour “The Mask of Orpheus,” the multiple and often contradictory versions of the myth are mirrored in a multiplicity of representations, with the principal characters impersonated by a singer, an actor and a puppet.

In addition, Mr. Birtwistle invented a language made up of the component syllables of the names Orpheus and Eurydice. When Orpheus makes his first utterances in this language, Mr. Birtwistle said, “the whole piece is a metaphor in the sense that it’s a dawn. And in this dawn, like a child learning to speak, he constructs the word Eurydice.” In this sense, Eurydice becomes more than just the object of Orpheus’s obsession; she is his creation.

There are no overt Orphean references in Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angel’s Bone,” a harrowing parable about sex trafficking. But at the heart of the opera is an aria by one of the story’s victims that is uttered in a musical language that, similar to many an Orphic lament, seems to rocket outside the work’s musical orbit. Drawing on Ms. Du’s interest in punk rock, and performed at the work’s premiere by Jennifer Charles, the aria proceeds in sobs, wails and screams.

“Virtuosity is there in a lot of styles,” Ms. Du said in a phone interview. “It’s not just screaming and no pitch. It’s understanding how the emotion drives the content.”

Ms. Du described a recent production of the opera that showed graphic sexual violence during that aria. “When women are going through those motions on stage, I can’t wrap my mind as a composer around telling them to sing notes,” Ms. Du said.

And yet, she added, there was something about the aria that breaks through the layers of craft and professionalism and shakes every performer who sings it to her core. So far everyone who has sung it — including Ms. Du herself — has broken down at the end. In the performances with Ms. Charles, Ms. Du said, “we had to turn off her mike for the next part so we would hear a little bit of sobbing upstage, but not in your ears. But I couldn’t tell her to stop sobbing.”

In a way, Ms. Du’s lament is a break with the centuries-old tradition of opera turning agony into beauty. Investigating music’s tendency to revel and wallow in pain is also a driving motivation for Mr. Aucoin, who is at work at a new opera focusing on the character of Eurydice. In this piece he sometimes has a countertenor and baritone double up for the part of Orpheus, endowing his voice with a sort of supernatural halo.

“For me, it was important to reflect the doubleness in Orpheus: the pleasure and pain, the mortal and the divine,” Mr. Aucoin said.

He said he had been thinking of what he called “that alchemical transfiguration” of pain into pleasure in the context of the recent fall from grace of the conductor James Levine, who has been accused of abusing young musicians.

“Part of his aesthetic, it seemed, was that no matter how much pain there was in the music, he treated it as if it were all pleasure,” Mr. Aucoin said. “He was obsessed with the lusciousness, even where that wasn’t the emotional content. I think it’s what made him both better than his musical peers and why there is something disturbing to some Levine recordings. And there is something equally uncomfortable in Orpheus.”

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