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Notes from Underground 

click to enlarge The set of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo."
  • The set of Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo."

High birth, charm, and talent all contribute, but it’s risk that makes the myth, loss that makes the legend.

This dynamic of eternal fame is the subject of Glimmerglass Opera’s 2007 festival season, as it explores the ancient story of Orpheus in four operas and a concert spanning a period of four centuries through July and August.

In Greek myth, Orpheus was the son of Apollo, the god of music, and Calliope, the muse of lyric poets. His precocious talent on the lyre was such that not only humankind, but animal-, vegetable-, and geological-kind also responded to his gift. He could soothe the savage breast, tame wild animals, and ease the trees and rocks of their hardness. The man had chops.

Yet, if you know the story of Orpheus today, it is not so much for his musical prowess as for the loss of his wife, Eurydice, whom he retrieved from hell only to lose again. On the day of their wedding, Eurydice was bitten by a poisonous snake and sent to Hades, where the grieving Orpheus traveled to plead his case to the rulers of the deathly realms. His entreaty moved even the dark gods, and Orpheus was allowed to escort his wife back to the light, under the condition that he not look back at her before they reached the upper world. Otherwise, she would be taken to Hades forever.

In this Orpheus failed. And for centuries, we’ve felt for him.

“We’ve all been in the situation of having something taken from us and wishing for a second chance,” says Glimmerglass director of artistic operations, Don Marazzo. “It’s a very powerful myth with very human emotions, whether from 1607 or 2007.”

Marazzo says it was recognition of the myth’s emotional immediacy that motivated Michael MacLeod, the Cooperstown, New York, opera company’s general and artistic director, to expand upon his original plan to stage Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” in celebration of its 400th anniversary. The search then was to find works that were sufficiently varied and intriguing to support a full season of the myth. Marazzo believes the program will offer viewers something special: “The operas are all so different musically, and they all handle the myth so differently. It encourages people to really see all four works.”

Given the difficulty of writing an opera and the pressure to assert one’s own compositional voice, Marazzo says it may be surprising that so many have made their attempts on Orpheus. But, he says, linking the mythic musician with his followers, “As Orpheus takes the risk, the composers take the risk.”

Glimmerglass’s lauded summer festival begins with Offenbach’s satirical opera “Orpheus in the Underworld,” which runs July 7-August 26; the Berlioz version of Gluck’s “Orphee et Eurydice” is presented July 8-August 28; Philip Glass’ “Orphee,” based on the Cocteau film of the same name, is staged July 21-August 27 (the composer will speak after the July 31 show); and Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 work “L’Orfeo” runs July 28-August 25. Additionally, as part of the festival, concerts of Haydn’s “L’Anima del Filosofo (Orfeo ed Euridice)” will be performed on August 5 and 19. (607) 547-2255; www.glimmerglass.org.

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