The histories of Italian and French opera are entangled, with few operas illustrating the situation more tellingly than Gluck’s celebrated treatment of the Orpheus legend. Like many operas, it exists in Italian (Orfeo ed Euridice, Vienna, 1762) and French (Orphée et Eurydice, Paris, 1774) versions, but until the 1980s modern audiences invariably heard a composite of both, assembled in its essentials by Berlioz. Given today’s healthy practice of favoring composers’ intentions, Gluck’s own versions have made a comeback, most recently exemplified by a new production of the French version by Lyric Opera of Chicago with the Joffrey Ballet.

Even before its transformation, the Italian version exhibited many French qualities, partly because it is an azione teatrale, a genre that, in...


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