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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orphée et Euridice (1774) [85.43]
Orphée – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (haut-contre)
Euridice – Catherine Dubosc (soprano)
Amour – Suzie Le Blanc (soprano)
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus/Ryan Brown
Recorded 11th – 15th January 2002, Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, University of Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.660185-86 [41.03 + 44.40]

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Posterity tends to favour a composer’s final thoughts when it comes to choosing the version of an opera to enter the standard repertoire. But Gluck’s setting of the Orpheus legend is an opera that bucks the trend. The opera was originally written, to an Italian libretto, for an alto castrato; Gluck also went on to produce an Italian version for a soprano castrato. When he moved to Paris, the Italian Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the works that he quarried to produce a group of French operas in which he brilliantly synthesized the ‘new simplicity’ of his Italian reform operas with the traditions of the French lyric theatre. Unfortunately for posterity, one of the French traditions that Gluck embraced was the use of the haut-contre rather than castrati.

The haut-contre voice is a species of high tenor in which the upper tenor register is extended using falsetto. This voice-type fell out of use in the 19th century and when Berlioz came to produce his version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice he kept the musical innovations and structure of the French haut-contre version, but transposed the hero back to an alto voice, suitable for a 19th French operatic (female) mezzo-soprano. And it is this version (back-translated into Italian and known as the Ricordi edition) which has come to be taken as standard.

Compared to the number of recorded versions of the Riccordi edition and the original Italian version, Gluck’s own final French version of the opera has fared rather badly on record. This is for two reasons. Firstly, it is only with the work of conductors like William Christie that we are re-discovering the real haut-contre voice; secondly, the rise in pitch on modern instruments puts the part beyond the reach of most tenors.

Given these problems, it is ironic that the most perfect recording of the haut-contre version of the opera was one made in the 1950s by Leopold Simoneau. He does use some transpositions and stylistically the accompaniment is rather old-fashioned, but Simoneau is almost unique on record in that he manages to combine a feel for the neo-classical simplicity of Gluck’s melodic lines with the intense passion of the subject matter. It helps, of course, that Simoneau was a native French speaker.

Mark Minkowski has recorded the work on Archiv with Richard Croft in the title role and now Naxos has released a recording of Orphée et Eurydice made following stage performances by the Washington DC based group, Opera Lafayette directed by Ryan Brown.

The big advantage that Brown’s recording has is the presence of the distinguished French haut-contre, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Anyone familiar with the opera sung by a female singer might get a bit of a shock when listening to Fouchécourt. Berlioz arranged the opera so that the vocal part sits squarely in the centre of the voice. But the haut-contre voice tends to shade away in its upper registers, the whole shape and contour of the part is altered as Fouchécourt very lightly touches in the upper notes. And in the bravura aria which concludes Act I, Fouchécourt sings the passagework in a light, sketchy way which is light-years away from the traditional mezzo-soprano interpretation.

Fouchécourt is a stylish singer and his way with the part is attractive but his reading of the role lacks, for me, passionate intensity; a reflection perhaps that singing Gluck’s new simplicity is rather different from singing operas by Lully and Rameau.

Ryan Brown’s view of the work also seems to pay little attention to the lyric, neo-classical elements of Gluck’s score. From the opening moments of overture, Brown and the Opera Lafayette Orchestra give a performance notable for its highly accented vividness and for its lack of a sense of line and classical simplicity. The Orchestra contribute some wonderfully exciting moments, but failed to provide the long breathed control of Gluck’s paragraphs. In a sense, the performance is taken from the point of view of Gluck’s predecessors, after all the opera was premiered just 10 years after Rameau’s death; as such it is given from a perfectly valid point of view. Its just that I would prefer a performance which reflected more of Gluck’s influence on later classical musicians.

Fouchécourt is well supported by the Euridice of Catherine Dubosc and Amour of Suzie Le Blanc; Le Blanc is notably successful at suggesting the tones of a boy soprano.

There were occasional moments where the ensemble and tuning of the orchestra is less than ideal. But there again this is a live recording, with all the advantages of freshness and vitality that this implies.

At 85 minutes this is slightly poor value for 2 CDs; but at super-budget price this set is highly recommendable. Perhaps we still need an ideal performance of this version of the opera, but Fouchécourt and Brown provide a convincing argument for considering the primacy of this version of the opera.

Robert Hugill

see also Reviews by Göran Forsling and Christopher Howell


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