• “Che faró senza Euridice?” – Transcendent Tranquility or Bare-Bones Bereavement?

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    How strange it feels to repeatedly read an interpretation of an aria, yet always disagree with it! I’ve read three different books now that discuss Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and in particular the famous aria “Che faró senza Euridice?” that Orpheus sings after losing Eurydice due to his fatal backward glance. They all target the 19th century critic Eduard Hanslick’s complaint that the aria’s fairly brisk, C-major melody sounds “too happy” for a lament. And their responses to his complaint are all essentially the same: that the aria isn’t supposed to be a lament, but a controlled, artistic response to suffering that transcends emotion.


    Joseph Kerman, in his book Opera as Drama, writes that in “Che faró,” Orpheus is “on top of his feelings, comprehending them, refining them, projecting them in artistic form;” that “his heart is not in the conflict, but in his own lyric introspection.” Conductor Hartmut Haenchen, in the liner notes to his recording of the opera, likewise describes the aria as an artistic transcendence of grief, not an expression of it. He goes a step further than Kerman by claiming that the point of “Che faró,” and by extension the whole opera, is not the loss of Eurydice, nor the quest to retrieve her, but “the artist’s search for perfection” and the music that Orpheus’s loss inspires him to create. Likewise, M. Owen Lee, in his book A Season of Opera: From Orpheus to Ariadne, claims that in “Che faró,” “Orpheus has reached a point beyond human feeling.”


    So then, should emotionalism be kept to a minimum in all performances of the aria? Should it always be sung with a transcendent tranquility rather than with the despair the libretto implies? Are the dozens of singers and conductors who have infused that lithe C-major melody with aching anguish all wrong? Do I, as a music lover, need to dismiss their renditions, even if I find them beautiful and moving, because they’re too emotional?


    I’ve always interpreted “Che faró” not as a “transcendence” of grief, but as a “distillation” of it, to quote another book that I read long ago. Grief stripped down to its bare bones. Having lost Eurydice forever by his own error, despite having experienced both literal and psychological hell to win her back, Orpheus (in my mind) feels a loss too great to express in an elaborate way. Just look at the translated text of the aria’s refrain:


    “What shall I do without Eurydice?

    Where shall I go without my love?”


    That’s all there is. The melody of the refrain is filled out by simply repeating those words. No fancy poetic tricks, no elegant rhyme scheme: just two unanswerable questions helplessly repeated. The rest of the text is almost equally bare-bones. To me, this is why the aria’s key of C-major makes sense, even if it doesn’t sound innately mournful. The major scale is, according to at least one source, “the foundation from which all other scales are formed,” and C-major is the simplest major scale: the easiest to write, the first that all musicians learn… in short, the most basic form of Western music. To my ears, Orpheus is expressing his enormous grief in its barest essentials, because anything more elaborate would cheapen it.


    Granted, I’m just an ordinary music lover, while the “transcendence of feeling” interpretation comes from seasoned musicologists and a conductor. But while of course they might be right and I might be wrong, who’s to say? All that Gluck ever wrote about his controversial aria was that it needs to be performed very carefully, to keep it from sounding like “puppet music” (Haenchen takes that statement to mean that most people misinterpret the aria; I take it only to mean that it requires a good singer and conductor). And some people might label my emphasis on the libretto unscholarly; it’s fashionable for musicologists to insist that “the composer is the real dramatist” in any opera. But the fact remains that opera is a synthesis of music and words, and we know that part of Gluck and Calzabigi’s goal with Orfeo and their other “reform operas” was to create a perfect word-and-music synthesis, rather than letting the music reign supreme.


    Haenchen supports his “artistic transcendence” argument by comparing “Che faró” to the Act I scena “Chiamo il mio ben cosí” (Orpheus’s lament after Eurydice’s first death), which he claims is a true lament. He notes the Act I monologue’s alternation between aria and recitative, between lyricism and “screaming” anguish, and points out that “Che faró,” by contrast, is pure lyricism. That’s true enough, but once again, I turn to the libretto. The text of “Chiamo il mio ben” is very flowery and poetic, with a very tidy, beautiful rhyme scheme. The “Che faró” text is much simpler, barer, and more spontaneous-sounding – Orpheus is less eloquent, and arguably seems more human and less “artistic” than he did before. And I may be wrong, but might the fairly brisk tempo of “Che faró,” and especially the brisk, agitated continuo beneath it (both of which Haenchen interprets as signifying a lack of melancholy), actually be signs of passion, not a lack thereof?


    All the writings I’ve read ignore one thing that I think might be significant. Eduard Hanslick’s criticism of the aria’s music as “too happy” was directed at the French version, “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,” not the original Italian. The French libretto, for me, diminishes the “distillation of grief” effect by replacing the original, bare-bones unanswered questions with a more conventionally poetic “lament,” similar to “Chiamo il mio ben cosí.” The refrain becomes:


    “I have lost my Eurydice!

    My misfortune has no equal!

    Cruel fate! Such severity!

    I am overcome with sorrow!”


    And those words rhyme very prettily in French. If Hanslick had heard Calzabigi’s original text, then who knows? Maybe he would have felt the same “distillation” effect that I do and wouldn’t have complained.


    Again, I’m not saying that I’m right and the musicologists are wrong. Who knows what Gluck and Calzabigi really intended when they composed that aria? Besides, emotion in music is always subjective. But “Che faró” has always had a certain emotional effect in my mind, completely different from the one the musicologists favor, so why shouldn’t I express it? If anyone else has their own opinions about this aria, please comment and let me know! No one needs a Ph.D to contribute to the “ongoing conversation” (for want of less clichéd phrasing) that is the study of music.

    • A beautiful and in my opinion, just, interpretation of this aria. It never occurred to me that the key of C Major has such a profound meaning in this context. I think it is the very simplicity of the aria that makes it so moving – as you say, it is an emotion so profound it doesn’t need to “try” to “be sad”. There are definitely dramatic and emotive moments in the aria though .. it sounds to me like a combination of numbness, acceptance, nobility in the face of suffering and underlying profound despair and anguish just beneath the surface. Never once have I listened to it and thought ooh, this sounds like a jolly tune – I think some people underestimate Gluck a bit in thinking that! Fantastic article – I enjoyed reading your perceptive interpretation 🙂

    • I know that I am your mother and that I have a prejudice as far as your writing in concerned and that we have had this conversation a few times. I must say, however, that you have distilled this controversy into a very readable, understandable article. thank you, I truly get it and as Anna said, I have never thought of it as a jolly tune either. It is profoundly moving and beautiful and my favorite piece in the opera.

    • This may be all very stale to you. I’ve read your analysis and do agree that close to every version from Kathleen Ferrier, Marilyn Horne to a more current crop of Counter Tenors give very similar renditions, some with more or less deliberate pacing. You use the word “emotion” but sadness is not truly the emotive impression I receive. Rather it’s resignation, particularly from Ferrier. Is there any interpretation that comes close to your view?

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