Orfeo ed Euridice was one of three operas composed by Gluck in an attempt to reform the Italian opera seria. The opera seria had many dramatic drawbacks, among them a stiff libretto full of contrivances and formal musical patterns that were given precedence over dramatic flow.
Gluck had an admirable dramatic imagination that balked at all this regimentation. After he had come into contact with the librettist and poet Ranieri de' Calzabigi, he began to imagine a new form of dramatic opera. Calzabigi wanted to bring French influences to the Italian opera, and his libretti are monumental poetic works in an Italian rhetorical style. The libretto for Orfeo ed Euridice is noble and grand, and the ending employs a typical deus ex machina to bring about a happy ending for the lovers.
The grandeur of the libretto must have inspired Gluck, for his approach to the score is also monumental, as well as essentially orchestral in nature. The opera opens after the death of Euridice to a funereal choral tableau which is pierced by the cries of the anguished Orfeo. Huge dramatic choruses of shades and furies contrast starkly with the solo recitatives and arias of Orfeo as he searches for Euridice. Music of the Elysian Fields offers another contrast. Orfeo's aria here features a myriad of solo instruments. The entire scene is radiant and heavenly. The third act is particularly beautiful, as Gluck and Calzabigi turn the shade of Euridice into a complex lover and wife, unwilling to follow her husband blindly out of Hades, even though she has been called back to life. Her arguments and pleadings, her passion and confusion, create the torment in Orfeo that results in her being sent back to hell.
The premiere of 1762 was a great success, and when Gluck later decided to try to reform the French tragedies lyriques, he rewrote Orfeo and took it to the Parisian stage. The original Orfeo had been an alto castrato. In Paris the role had to be rewritten for a countertenor voice, as the French never used castrati, finding them ridiculous. The French version was also grander and more elaborate to suit the taste of the Parisians. The final happy ending was turned into a huge divertissement with ballet.
Orfeo ed Euridice achieved international renown and is still widely performed. In 1859 Berlioz made a third version of Orfeo which combined the French and Italian scores. He rewrote the part of Orfeo for Pauline Viardot, a female interpreter. In the nineteenth century the part was sung by a contralto as often as by a tenor, and in the twentieth century Orfeo was even been sung by a baritone. The most celebrated excerpt from it is not an aria, but the orchestral Dance of the Blessed Spirits.