What became known as opera originated in Florence, Italy, during late-16th-century equivalents of college dorm bull sessions.
At the time, that cultured city was a hotbed of artistic experimentation. A group of composers, poets, singers, intellectuals and royal patrons formed a club for discussions that eventually led to an idea: to create a new hybrid of music and theater in the manner of Greek tragedies, which they believed had been written as sung-through dramas.
There was striking consensus about the ideal subject for the first attempts at this art form: the mythological Orpheus whose songs had the power to entrance nature, soothe souls and even conquer death. When his wife, Eurydice, dies from a snake bite right after their wedding, the grief-stricken, resolute Orpheus descends to the underworld, charms Pluto himself, and receives conditional permission to lead Eurydice back to earth and back to life.
The earliest surviving opera, by the composer and singer Jacopo Peri, titled “Euridice” after its heroine, was introduced in Florence in 1600. Two years later, Peri’s ruthlessly ambitious rival Giulio Caccini presented his own “Euridice,” purposely employing the same libretto (by Ottavio Rinuccini) and rushing his piece into publication before Peri had a chance. In 1607, Claudio Monteverdi, then working for the Duke of Mantua, presented the first truly great surviving opera, “L’Orfeo.”
In the four centuries since that milestone, Orpheus has continued to claim the imaginations of composers. The latest is Matthew Aucoin, whose “Eurydice,” based on the 2003 play by Sarah Ruhl, premiered at the Los Angeles Opera early last year and opens at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 23.
There are at least 75 known operas offering various takes on the Orpheus myth: later in the 17th century, from Matthew Locke in England, Charpentier and Lully in France and Reinhard Keiser in Germany, then from Telemann, Benda and Haydn in the 1700s. When Gluck decided, in the 1760s, that the time had come to reform and elevate the opera genre, which had become too flashy, what did he come up with? “Orfeo ed Euridice,” naturally.
Interest in the myth fell off somewhat during the 19th century. In fact, the great Orpheus work from that era was Offenbach’s delightfully witty and irreverent operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld,” which pokes fun at the obsession. But the subject came roaring back in the 20th century, especially the later decades, with major works by, among others, Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle and Philip Glass. It’s extended to Broadway as well, in the musical “Hadestown.”
Only a handful of Orpheus operas have entered the active repertoire. Among the overlooked works is Luigi Rossi’s “L’Orfeo,” which premiered in Paris in 1647, and is now receiving a splendidly performed and inventively staged production by Juilliard Opera and Juilliard415, the school’s early music ensemble, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Rossi, who had enjoyed a thriving, if tumultuous career in Rome, relocated to Paris, where, under the sponsorship of Cardinal Mazarin, he was tasked with introducing French audiences to Italian opera. The result was his near-epic take on the Orpheus myth, presented in a reportedly spectacular production.
In line with common practices of Baroque opera, the conductor Avi Stein, who drew spirited and stylish playing from a 16-piece ensemble, consulting with the director, Mary Birnbaum, trimmed and adapted Rossi’s score for the Juilliard production. The work’s more than two dozen characters were reduced here to a cast of 14 excellent young singers, some taking two or three roles. The original prologue and epilogue, allegorical paeans to the young Louis XIV, were replaced with shorter vocal pieces from Rossi’s catalog. With the score cut by about a third, the running time offered some two hours of engaging, often splendidly beautiful music.
In this version of the tale, Orfeo and Euridice become pawns in the hands of capricious godly and allegorical characters: Venus and Amore, Pluto and Proserpina and personifications of Jealousy and Suspicion. There is also Augure, a diviner who can sense the future, and from the start the omens look forbidding for the newlyweds.
Still, their essential love, despite threats from outside and their own doubts and insecurities, come through beautifully thanks to the winning singing and youthful bearing of the tenor Richard Pittsinger as Orfeo and the soprano Julie Roset as Euridice. In this telling, Orfeo has a rival, Aristeo (the charismatic mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas), who has been struck by Cupid and desperately fallen in love with Euridice. In a bold interpretive touch, this production presents Aristeo as a woman. That tweak, as executed here, was no glib nod to sexual politics, but an intriguing reading of the erotic confusions that swirl within the characters and throughout this entire opera.
Although the story unfolds in stretches of melodically enhanced recitative, Rossi’s score is unusually rich with vocal duets, trios and ensembles, arias and choruses with catchy tunes, orchestral ritornellos and dances galore (charming choreographic gestures by Jeffrey Page). Why is this wonderful opera not presented more often?
Aucoin’s “Eurydice” — like Ruhl’s play, which she adapted into the opera’s libretto — tells the myth from the woman’s perspective. And in this fantastical modern-day version, there are tensions between the couple from the start. Eurydice loves Orpheus but gets impatient with his self-absorbed fixation on music. He doesn’t share her passion for books and words. In an intriguing nod to mythology, Orpheus is presented as two characters: an everyday guy and a spirit double who appears when the young man’s questing nature comes to the fore.
When Eurydice dies, she embarks on a soul-searching journey in the underworld. That might seem like a leap from the original myth. But it is actually a crisis that many Orpheus adaptations have plumbed — especially, to my surprise and delight, the one by Rossi.
Through Sunday at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Lincoln Center, Manhattan; juilliard.edu.