Orpheus in the Underworld

or the legend of
Orpheo and Euridice

has captured the imagination of composers for many centuries. Monteverdi, Peri, Gluck, Liszt and Stravinsky were all inspired by it.  Haydn with his unlucky Opera may perhaps have succeeded best in building an intense and flowing drama on the scale of the great Greek tragic plays. His use of the choir to comment on the drama throughout, as in the great Greek tragedies is masterly. His use of major keys to portray tragedy and drama shows an insight in to the colour of tonalities that is unsurpassed. And yet fate dictated that he would never hear the opera himself. During the first rehearsal of Orpheo and Euridice in 1791 at the Haymarket Theatre in London, when no more than 40 bars had been played, official emissaries of King George the Third abruptly interrupted the music and on the express orders of the King, banned the rehearsal to continue. To contravene this order would have meant jail.

The Theatre had been refused a licence for Opera by the King and therefore could not open after its reconstruction following a fire in 1789. Concerts and Ballet in the theatre would be permitted but no opera was allowed. The performance was banned and Orpheo and Euridice lay unperformed for over 150 years until 1951 when Maria Callas and Erich Kleiber gave the first performance in Florence and Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge the first Viennese performance at the Vienna Festival in 1967.

The background to this tragedy was a conflict of interests between the King George III and his son, the Prince of Wales. The King was Patron of the Pantheon whilst the Prince of Wales supported the Italian Opera at the Haymarket. The King announced that there " was too much Italian being sung in London ". The Pantheon was a company which was run by a certain Robert O'Reilly who had opened the theatre in 1791 in order to take advantage of the fact that the Haymarket Theatre run by Sir John Gallini had had its theatre burnt down in 1789. Feelings were running high and it was said that Gallini's Theatre had been burnt down by an Italian who had worked for Gallini and fallen out with him. Rumour had it that the Italian was even seen sipping coffee in a nearby café and enjoying the spectacle of the burning Opera House. This blow for Gallini was followed by another when O'Reilly founded the Italian Opera Company in the Pantheon. The stage, however, was too small and they appealed to the father of the Irish playwright, RB Sheridan to force his former servant, who owned a plot of land behind the theatre, to sell it to them so that they could widen the stage. Sheridan replied in no uncertain terms that he would most certainly not do any such thing as the performance of Italian operas at the Pantheon was both illegal and unfair towards the Opera House at the Haymarket whose proprietors were doing everything they could to rebuild the theatre. He vowed, on the contrary, that he would do everything in his power to prevent O'Reilly from succeeding.

Gallini, at the Haymarket was a colourful character. An Italian dancer, choreographer and impresario he had been made a " Knight of the Golden Spur by the Pope " following a successful performance. He decided after this that he should be referred to as " Sir John Gallini ".  It was for his company that Haydn wrote Orpheo and Euridice.

Haydn had been brought to England by the extraordinary powers of persuasion of the violinist and impresario Salomon. Salomon, a German, was a fine violinist and had lived with the Beethoven family in Bonn. Beethoven thought highly of him. Salomon travelled especially to Vienna to persuade Haydn to return with him to England for a season. He promised to pay him 300 pounds for a new opera to be performed by Gallini's company, 300 pounds for 6 new symphonies, 200 pounds for their copyright and 200 pounds for twenty smaller compositions. Haydn agreed to these terms and arrived in London on New Year's Day in 1791. He set to work immediately on Orpheo and Euridice. It was a bitter disappointment therefore, that the Premiere never eventuated. Ironically, the Pantheon burnt down in 1792. Michael Kelly, the Irish Tenor who sang for Mozart in the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro, tells of an amusing incident in his memoirs, which occurred at the scene of the fire at the Pantheon. Kelly and Sheridan were standing together and seeing the height of the flames they asked a fireman if it was possible to extinguish them. The fireman, an Irishman, under the impression that Sheridan was all for the place burning down, replied cheerily: " For the love of Heaven, Mr. Sheridan, don't make yourself uneasy, Sir; by the Powers, it will soon be down ; sure enough they won't have another drop of water in five minutes!"

Haydn and his librettist Badini thoroughly researched the legend of Orpheus and Euridice. They based their version of the Opera on books X and XI of Ovid's Metamorphosis as well as Virgil's 4th Georgic. Ovid's version is riveting and violent. Vergil's writing is, perhaps, more in the spirit of Haydn in the beauty and sympathy of the language. Remaining faithful to the legend is at the core of Haydn's opera and is the driving force throughout it. 

Of great interest is Haydn's use of the chorus, which resembles the structure of a great Sophocles tragedy. The Chorus narrates andcomments throughout the opera. We know that Haydn had been fascinated by English choruses, by their excellence and their size. This may also have influenced his decision to give the choir such an important role.

Another fascinating element in the opera is Haydn's choice of keys. In 1768 Jean-Jacques Rousseau had developed a table with the characteristics of different keys.

His thesis was that F and the flat major keys express gravity or majesty and the sharp major keys brilliance or joy. Abt Vogler and H.C. Koch argued that keys which used many open strings on the violin had a much brighter, sharper sound whereas keys using closed strings had a darker sound. Haydn's choice of E flat major for Orpheo's final aria is daring and imaginative. Rather than using a minor key, Haydn has combined this dark sound of E flat major with unforgettable orchestration, such as the bassoon which almost wails in accompaniment to Orpheo's grief.

Haydn's Orpheo and Euridice is a masterpiece, which deserves to be established firmly in the repertoire of opera companies today. In the words of Stendhal:  "Haydn left London with eleven completed numbers of his Orpheo among his luggage- eleven numbers, which, I have been credibly assured represent his finest achievements in operatic music and so returned to Austria".

In Haydn's opera a Prince Arideo has been given the hand of Euridice against her will. Arideo never appears in the opera and it seems that the construction of his character is based on that of Aristeus the shepherd. Ovid begins his account of the legend by bitterly chastising Aristeus: " Divine is the wrath which pursues you" and later " You were the reason. It was to flee from your advances across a stream, forward she fled, the poor fated girl not seeing before her feet buried in the grass, the watchful one, a monstrous serpent ".

Euridice's father, Creonte has, it seems been constructed from the character of Creon, King of Thebes. The character of Orpheo and his descent in to the underworld relies on both Ovid and Virgil . His arrival at the throne of the Ruler of the underworld, Pluto and his wife Persephone surrounded by the Fates is dramatic in Ovid's account. His plea touched their hearts,  " the very vultures ceased gnawing Tityus's liver, Ixion's wheel was still with wonder, Danaus's daughters rested from their pitchers and Sisyphus was still on his rock "

Euridice is summoned. Orpheo has the chance to take her away from this terrible place on the condition that he does not venture to look at her until they are out of the underworld. Here again Ovid's description of the ensuing tragedy is dramatic. He writes: "They proceeded up the sloping way in utter silence, up the steep dark path surrounded by inaccessible gloom until they were almost at the earth's surface. Here, concerned for his wife's strength lest it fail her and longing to see her, the lover looked behind and immediately Euridice slipped back into the depths." Ovid continues with a description of Orpheo desperately trying to clutch Euridice as she disappears but only managing to clasp the air. She had been taken back to the place from which there was no return.

"No word of plaint even in that second Death
Against her lord she uttered,- how could Love
Too anxious be upbraided?- but one last
And sad ' Farewell!' scarce audible, she sighed,
and vanished to the Ghosts that late she left."
Ovid  (King's tr.)

Virgil writes of the seven long months that Orpheo wept for Euridice under a crag beside the Strymon and how his heart was closed to love. He wondered far and wide lamenting his loss. The Thracian women feeling themselves rejected and despised with Orpheo's unending love of Euridice, fell upon him in a Bacchic orgy. They tore him to pieces, from limb to limb and strew his remains everywhere. His head was carried downstream on the Hebrus and it is said that even severed as it was from his body, its tongue continued to cry "Euridice, Euridice", as it disappeared.

copyright Lygia O'Riordan 1995