The opera was commissioned by Johann Peter Salomon for the King's Theatre, Haymarket, London, in 1791. After arriving in London on 1 January of that year, Haydn commented in a letter to Prince Anton Esterházy: “The new opera libretto which I am to compose is entitled Orfeo, in 5 acts, but I shall not receive it for a few days. It will be completely different from that of Gluck. The prima donna is called Madame Lops from Munich – she is a pupil of the famous Mingotti. Seconda donna is Madame Capelletti. Primo hommo is the celebrated Davide. The opera contains only 3 persons, viz, Madame Lops, Davide, and a castrato, who apparently is not very special. Incidentally, the opera is supposed to contain many choruses, ballets and a lot of big changes of scenery.” Unfortunately, owing to political intrigue, the opera was never performed in the composer's lifetime.
The first complete performance (unstaged) was for a recording made in 1950 by the Haydn Society of Boston (HSLP 2029), conducted by Hans Swarowsky. The first staged performance took place during the 1951 Maggio Musicale festival in Florence; the distinguished cast included Maria Callas, Boris Christoff and Tygge Tyggeson and the conductor was Erich Kleiber.
The Orpheus myth is recorded in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Books IX and X, and Virgil's Georgics, Book IV. C. F. Badini's libretto, however, is not a simple retelling of the classical story; rather, the myth is read through the prism of the European Enlightenment – as the first part of the opera's dual title would indicate. The chorus is employed throughout the work, as in classical Greek tragedy.