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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Zhurbin: Orpheus and Euridice; Charpentier: La Descente d'Orphee aux Enfers

02/04/2018 1:00 pm
02/04/2018 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

In the history of opera, from its very beginnings in the time of Monteverdi onwards, there have been so many, many variations on the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus. This Sunday you get to hear two different operatic treatments of the old story. Alexander Zhurbin's Orpheus and Euridice (1975) is a rock opera variant. Orpheus here is a rock star with an impossibly big ego. He's a "one hit wonder." The captivating hit song he sings he got from his beloved Euridice.

In this version of the story she doesn't descend into the Underworld. Alexander Zhurbin (b.1945) comes from Tashkent originally. He was one of the most popular composers in the former Soviet Union. Since 1990 he has resided in New York. Zhurbin's Russian Orpheus and Euridice created a sensation in the old USSR in the 1970's. Claims are made that it was performed 2500 times (!) there and elsewhere in Europe. The double LP release of his rock opera sold at least a million copies. The 1977 LP release was reissued here in the US in 2000 through Albany Records on two compact discs. The two vocal soloists are backed by the Poyshchiye Guitary, the "Singing Guitars" rock band. Zhurbin's Orpheus and Euridice easily falls within the sub-genre of twentieth century rock/pop/classical crossover stageworks.

The Russian singers have Broadway-type voices. What they sing may remind you of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Claude-Michel Schonberg. Zhurbin knows how to craft really nice tuneful song numbers. The Albany CD has additional tracks that give us another one of Zhurbin's vocal works, Two Portraits (1999), songs set to the poetry of twentieth century Russian poets Marina Tsvetayeva and Velimir Khlebnikov.

A much more traditional approach to the Orpheus myth is to be found in a work of the French baroque, La Descente d'Orphée aux Enfers ("The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld," 1686-87) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. His opera in two acts was the first-ever lyric stagework in French language dealing with this subject. Charpentier (1643-1704) was a contemporary of the great Jean Baptiste Lully, who created French opera. Charpentier wrote a quantity of church music, some small-scale divertissements, two Biblical tragedies for the Jesuit colleges of Paris, and one large-scale Lullian tragedie lyrique: Medee (1693), which was judged a failure. La Descente d'Orphée is a little gem of seventeenth century vocal art.

The Duchess de Guize made available to Charpentier a group of ten singers and a chamber ensemble of instrumentalists, for whom he reworked an Orpheus cantata he had written in 1683. There's speculation he might have written a third act for his Orpheus opera, but it's not to be found in the autograph score that has survived. The action of the opera seems incomplete where it ends. But the first two acts are a joy to hear as performed by the vocalists and period instrument players of Ensemble Correspondences, directed by Sebastien Dauce. A 2017 French Harmonia Mundi release on a single compact disc.