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The Story of 'Orfeo'

ACTS ONE & TWO: The opera's first two acts are both set in the fields of Thrace, where Orfeo and Euridice are married in a raucous celebration that includes a chorus of shepherds and nymphs. But as the second act begins, things turn dark. Orfeo is near the woods, with friends, when a messenger brings bad news. Euridice has been bitten by a poisonous snake, and is dead. The exchange between the dumbfounded Orfeo and Silvia, the messenger, is an extraordinary musical sequence with wildly contrasting harmonies, portraying Orfeo's refusal to accept reality. His denial is so absolute that as Act Two ends, he decides to travel down into the underworld to confront the forces of hell, and bring Euridice back.

ACTS THREE, FOUR & FIVE: Orfeo ventures into the underworld. At first, he is accompanied by the character representing Hope — but she leaves him to his own devices when they reach the gates of the underworld, and find a sign with the famous words, "Abandon hope all ye who enter."

The gates are also guarded by an intimidating character called Caronte. Orfeo appeals to him in one of the opera's most extraordinary and emotional musical numbers, called "Possente spirto" — "Powerful spirit." Orfeo's plaintive lines are echoed by instruments, and his pleas are interrupted by longer instrumental passages that reinforce his desperation. Caronte is unmoved, but the music eventually lulls him to sleep, and Orfeo slips past as the act ends.

In the fourth act, Orfeo confronts Plutone, Lord of the Underworld. He's not inclined to release Euridice, but with some extra persuasion from Plutone's consort, Proserpina, Orfeo wins the day. Plutone says that Orfeo can have Euridice — but only if he leads her out of the underworld without turning back to look at her. Orfeo agrees, but his love is too strong. On their way home Orfeo turns, sees Euridice, and loses her again — this time, forever.

Back in Thrace for Act Five, Orfeo is despondent. His lament is one of the opera's most beautiful passages, with a distant echo repeating his phrases, as though in sympathy. The tension is broken when the god Apollo appears. He offers to take Orfeo into heaven, where he can join Euridice among the stars. The shepherds and nymphs do a dance of celebration, while Apollo and Orfeo ascend, magically, into the clouds.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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