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Christoph Willibald GLUCK

Orfeo ed Euridice
Risë Stevens (Orfeo), Lisa Della Casa (Euridice), Roberta Peters (Amore), Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
BMG 09026 63534 2 [2 discs 76.45 + 53.36] Recorded in 1957

Though recorded in Rome this is basically the Metropolitan Orfeo of the mid-fifties. Monteux was by then almost as old as the three principals put together yet it is his contribution which is likely to seem least dated to modern ears. Textures are kept light, but with strength where needed (the Overture sounds less pointless than usual) and the music is always kept moving forward. The edition used is a hybrid one, as it always was in those days, but it makes dramatic sense.

The drawback is Risë Stevens' Orfeo. Her voice is firmly and steadily produced (I'll give her that much), with massive recourse to chest tones, not just below middle C but from about E downwards (a mezzo shouldn't need to do this, surely?) and LOUD. I find only the most generalised involvement with Orfeo's plight, resulting in almost unrelieved hectoring. The Furies are not so much tamed as shouted down, reviving fond memories of the halcyon days of Mrs. Thatcher at Westminster. Che farò appears less a personal statement than a funeral oration in the grand manner.

Roberta Peters' Amore seems to take its tone from the Orfeo. Lisa Della Casa was a lovely artist but, perhaps because of the context in which she found herself, doesn't quite have the statuesque dignity of the real Gluck singer. Still, listen to the last track when Orfeo, Amore and Euridice sing a stanza each and you'll hear what vocal class means.

The orchestra is not always precise but plays attractively. The choir is good of its kind. Italian choirs in those days were trained to sing with a beefy vibrato (some still are) which was OK for Verdi and precious little else, and wouldn't change it for anyone. The recording, one or two passing moments of distortion apart, has come up very well, the original note has been retained as an example of American period hype with a good synopsis and translations into French and German. The Italian libretto is given, but with an English translation only.

Monteux completists will want to hear this (with a full complement of dances and ballet music, the orchestra has quite a lot on its own) but was he able to give the interpretation he really wanted? Listen to the powerfully forward-moving start of Che farò, with an unusual emphasis on the chugging quavers which promises an interesting performance. Enter Miss Stevens and the tempo is slowed down drastically. That Monteux did not see fit to correct this anomaly by re-recording the introduction at the speed of the aria itself suggests he preferred to leave to posterity his own private protest.

So in the end, unless you want a taste of how Mrs. Thatcher might have sung if she had been able to, leave well alone.

Christopher Howell

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