A bit random, but it’s something I’ve just been listening to and I thought I’d share it. This lovely aria is from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.
Orpheus is a poet and musician whose music is so beautiful that even stones are enchanted by it. When his beloved Eurydice is killed by snakes, he travels to the underworld to try and win her back. Even the hearts of the rulers of the underworld are softened by his sweet music, and they agree she can return to life on the one condition that he doesn’t look at her, even once, until they have emerged again into the world of the living.
In this aria, after various travails, Orpheus finds himself in the Elysian fields. ‘How pure the sky,’ he sings, ‘how bright the sun…’ But none of this can make him happy until he has Eurydice back again. At the very end of the aria, the chorus announces the arrival of Eurydice. Heart-stopping moment! To be in her presence again, when he thought he’d lost her forever and yet be forbidden to look at her, or even to explain to her why he must constantly turn away his face.
It fascinates me the way old stories from different places tend to echo one other. No doubt this is sometimes because a story from one culture is heard and taken up by people from another, like the story of St Josaphat. But I’m sure it also happens because certain stories reflect deep structures in the human mind which are universal, and perhaps even hardwired into our brains.
I think of the biblical story of Lot’s Wife, who would be turned to a pillar of salt if she looked back at the city of Sodom. But a much stronger resonance is with the Norse story of Balder, who like Orpheus was capable of stirring the hearts even of animals and stones.
In the Balder story it is Balder himself who dies and his mother who sends a messenger down into the underworld to beg for his return. As in the Greek story, the ruler of the underworld grants the request on one condition (albeit a different one), and as in the Greek story (though not in the opera!), the condition is almost met but not quite, and the beloved one is lost forever.