Women in love: Gluck’s Orpheus as a source of romantic consolation in Vienna, Paris, and Stockholm
From Firenze University Press Journal: Diciottesimo Secolo
John A. Rice
Among those who witnessed early performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice were Princess Isabelle of Parma, Julie de Lespinasse, and Countess Sophie Fersen. Orpheus, and the music Gluck wrote for him, stirred up similar responses in these passionate young women, all of whom found in the protagonist’s tragic plight consolation for own romantic yearning. This paper explores their emotional states, as documented in their letters, and offers some explanations for their identification with a male character from Greek mythology, as brought to life by Gluck’s music and the men who sang it«Je me figurais être Orphée»,wrote Countess Sophie Fersen after at-tending a performance of Christoph Gluck’s Orpheus och Euridice in Stockholm in 1777. She was writing to a man with whom she had been involved in a brief and passionate love affair, and who had just left Sweden. Countess Fersen was not the only young woman who found romantic consolation in Gluck’s Orpheus. Already during the first run of performances in 1762,Princess Isabelle of Parma, recently married to Archduke(later Emperor) Joseph, wrote mournfully to her sister-in-law Marie Christine, whose company she much preferred to Joseph’s.
Isabelle identified herself with Orpheus as a way of express-ing the depth and hopelessness of her love.
And shortly after the première of the Paris version in 1774, Julie de Lespinasse wrote to her beloved Comte de Guibert, who was far from Paris, that she found a mixture of pain and pleasure in Gluck’s opera:«Je voudrois entendre dix foispar jour cet air qui me déchire, et qui me fait jouir de tout ce que je regrette:j’ai perdu mon Euridice».
The operatic character whose plight consoled these women was nota woman who had lost her lover, but a man who had lost his wife. The singers–all of them male –who portrayed him differed greatly: in Vienna a contralto musico sang in Italian; in Paris an haute contre sang in French, in Stockholm a tenor sang in Swedish.Yet all three singers managed to stir up similar responses in young female members of their audience. In this paper I will explore the emotional states of these women (as documented in their letters)and offer some explanations for their identification with a male character from Greek mythology, as brought to life byGluck’s music and the men who sang it.
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