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Orpheus and Eurydice

My son Kevin and I had an amazing weekend. He wanted to take me to a trap concert down in LA, and on Wednesday and Thursday we trawled around on the web looking for things to do to fill up the time between Saturday morning and Sunday evening. We hit kind of a perfect cultural storm, with the play Water by the Spoonful closing and the opera Orpheus and Eurydice opening at the Music Center on the same weekend.

We didn’t see the opera, but got tickets (for $35 each) at the Getty Villa on Sunday to hear the reflections of curators, musical historians and the opera director James Conlon on the mythical and cultural significance of Orpheus. The event closed with an abridged offering of Gluck’s original score, rewritten for piano accompaniment and sung by two women: an alto as Orpheus and a very pregnant soprano as Amor and Eurydice.

For those that don’t know the myth: on their wedding day, Orpheus entertains the guests with lyre and song, and Eurydice is found alone by a spurned suitor who chases her into the marsh, where she is stung by a serpent and dies. Orpheus is overcome with grief until counseled by Eros (Amor) to use his skills to beguile the guardians of Hades and inspire its master to allow Eurydice to return to life. He succeeds, but the condition is that he neither look at nor speak to Eurydice on the journey out of Hades. Taken from the Elysian fields of eternal happiness, Eurydice is confused, and beseeches Orpheus to explain until becoming angry. Tormented, Orpheus emerges from the cave and turns a moment too soon. Eurydice is still within, and falls into oblivion.

Orpheus wanders the land grieving, renouncing the company of women. His music still enflames their desire, though, and eventually he encounters a company in whom frustration kindles violence. The women beat and dismember him, throwing his head into the river where it floats away still singing.

In Ancient Athens, women were denied access to society, cloistered to ensure the bloodline of the patriarchs. Culturally, Eurydice was an afterthought, and Orpheus celebrated principally for his music and the understanding of the afterlife that was stamped into golden foil to guide the dead on their passage to Hades.

With the resurrection of Greek culture during the Renaissance, the Greek tragedy was recast as Opera, and Orpheus and Eurydice was a staple. Perhaps in part due to that popularity, Gluck adopted it as a set-piece for operatic reforms intended to clarify dramatic focus. The intellectual controversy, the popularity of the myth and the image of art living on after death made the story a mainstay in the plastic arts as well, particularly among those that felt that the Enlightenment was extinguishing the sacred embers that once permeated the world.

In early Christian iconography, it is not uncommon for Orpheus and Christ to be transposed. The torment of Orpheus, destroyed by those whose virtuous exemplar he honors, evokes the Cross. The myth also has parallels with the Garden of Eden: the inattentive male, the trusting spouse, and the serpent that sunders their bliss.

So I found myself, as the Italian libretto was summarized, confronting the same frustration that caused me to write this, when re-iterating God’s motivations in bringing Eve into being:

Get a clue, guys!

Calzabigi (the librettist) charts Eurydice’s descent into doubt and vanity. She is a torment to Orpheus, who eventually sings “I knew that this would happen.” But from the intonations of the soprano on Sunday afternoon, I inferred this: “Orpheus, what is my place in your world?”

It was to explore answers to that question that I had Kevin help me chase down Professor Morris at the reception. I was distressed by the conversation, though not surprised: no one has wrestled meaningfully with the problem of feminine virtue except in juxtaposition to masculine virtue.

What Orpheus must have understood, having lost her again, is that the opportunities she had surrendered to death were things he had not celebrated, for if he did, Elysium would have had no pull on her. Motherhood, gentleness, healing, compassion, inspiration: why did he not sing of these before? Why did he not turn his every effort to bringing Elysium to the world in song, rather than indulging his virtuosity?

For nothing of virtue lasts unless a woman brings it to flower.

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