From here . . .to there


EILEEN BATTERSBYponders JRR Tolkien and Claudio Monteverdi

JRR TOLKIEN (1892-1973), author of the romance epic, The Lord of the Rings, believed in story. Students of Old and Middle English value his scholarly understanding of medieval literature. Tolkien honoured the heroic code which underlines early and medieval literary texts, while as a member of literature’s war generation he experienced and survived the horrors of the Somme.

Among his translations is a charming version of Sir Orfeo, an early English poem in which Orfeo is both musician and king. The text of the English poem is found in the Auchinleck manuscript, dating from about 1330 and begins: “Orfeo was a king” while two other versions include a scene-setting prologue meditating on the role of love. This English poem dates from the late 13th or early 14th centuries, and is probably a translation of an earlier French work.

Orpheus originated in Greek mythology: the son of Apollo and Calliope, he was a gifted musician, capable of seducing the very trees and stones with his art. When his bride Eurydice, a Dryad, died, such was his grief that he ventured down to Hades imploring Persephone to release Eurydice. His wish was granted on the condition that he did not look at her until they had left the Underworld. But he did and all was lost.

Tolkien’s version is far happier. When his Sir Orfeo loses his beloved he forsakes his kingdom and sets off on an odyssey of grief. His trusty steward takes charge. Eventually, Orfeo sees his lady in the company of the women of another king. Orfeo accepts a challenge; if his playing is sufficiently inspiring he may claim a prize. He wins and asks for his lady. On returning to his kingdom he discovers that his steward has remained loyal. Harmony is established.

German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) composed his Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, also favouring a buoyant ending, though first testing the hero whose Euridice has died. Amore takes pity on him. Orfeo then negotiates with Pluto. Euridice, distressed by Orfeo’s refusal to look at her is so upset, that he turns to comfort her and loses her again. His moving lament Che faro senza Euridice wins Amore’s mercy and the lovers are reunited. But late Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) looked to the tragedy and in his La Favola d’Orfeo, first performed in 1607, his Orfeo – Orpheus – a singer, is interrupted when rejoicing in his forthcoming wedding to Euridice, and told that his bride is dead, victim of a snake-bite.

Again, Orfeo in this version crosses the River Styx into Hades to plead with Pluto and Prosperina. The couple are about to leave Hades when our hero glances back lovingly at Euridice who immediately dies. Apollo’s only comfort is that Orfeo will have all of eternity to gaze at her.

Opera Theatre Company’s nationwide tour of 12 performances begins tonight at the Theatre Royal Waterford. Opera’s first great work dramatises a classical myth, presents Monteverdi at his most innovative and teaches us about love, obedience and mercy.