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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice, Opera in Four Acts
Combination of 1762 Vienna and 1774 Paris versions. Sung in Italian
Orfeo, Ewa Podles (cont); Euridice, Ana Rodrigo (sop); Amore, Elena de Merced (sop)
Chorus of the Comunidad de Madrid
Orchestra Sinfónica de Galicia/Peter Maag
Live recording. La Coruna, Spain. 19 June 1998
ARTS 47536-2 [34.29 + 69.14]

The legend of Orfeo is amongst the most durable of operatic themes. It is the basis of Monteverdi’s work of that name which many consider the very first opera worthy of staging. Gluck’s version came over 150 years later. In the meantime the genre of opera had grown massively and evolved it own rather static conventions. With his version of Orfeo, and in subsequent works, Gluck sought to break away from those static conventions of recitative and aria, which focused attention on the singers at the expense of the music and drama of the piece. These were his so called ‘reform operas’. Working closely with his librettist Calzabigi (1714-1795) Gluck’s Orfeo was created with carefully constructed scenes. It introduced dances and chorus to give ‘the language of the heart, strong passions, interesting situations and constantly varied spectacle’. This instead of the static ‘flowery descriptions, superfluous comparisons and sententious, cold moralising’ of what had gone before. In my view these objectives were magnificently realised in this wonderfully melodic and dramatically taut work. Its structure is such as to have drawn Berlioz and Wagner to make revised editions.

So far so simple. Gluck, however, cast a contralto castrati as his Orfeo for the first production in Vienna on the 5 October 1762. But the age of the castrati, the great primas of Handel’s operas, was drawing to a close. They had not been acceptable in France where a form of high tenor had evolved. For the work’s premiere in Paris in 1774 (not 1776 as the booklet title page indicates) Gluck re-wrote the role of Orfeo for this high tenor voice. He also, like Verdi and Wagner later, had to provide additional ballet music for Paris performance. These additions have become integrated into many performing and recorded versions of Orfeo such as this one. Other performances and recordings, particularly in the past fifteen years or so, have reverted to period instruments. These have also involved the singing of the role of Orfeo by a counter-tenor or falsettist with no use of vibrato by soloists or orchestra. The problem with most counter-tenors is that whilst they are strong at the top of the voice they often lack strength lower down their range. The contralto castrato at the premiere had a range of three octaves. Ewa Podles, the Orfeo on this recording, has a similar range up to a brilliant top C.

Ewa Podles has sung at all the world’s great opera houses and with the greatest orchestras and conductors. Her recordings of Rossini’s Tancredi, Gluck’s Armide and Handel’s Ariodonte have all received numerous awards. On this recording her portrayal of Orfeo is outstanding in respect of both singing and characterisation. She uses the wide range of her voice to colour her elegant phrasing (CD 1 tr. 8) and varied expression (CD 1 tr. 11), as she is variously plaintive, poignant and passionate in her portrayal. In a couple of places, at each end of her range, there is a smudged note that would have been corrected in a studio recording. There are also times when she softens the consonants too much and her diction suffers. I don’t know if this live recording is of a concert performance or a staged one, but there is no extraneous stage noise or off-mike singing. Most importantly there is no audience noise or applause during the performance. The acoustic is warm with the soloists and chorus set behind the orchestra. From their names, I guess both Ana Rodrigo as Euridice and Elena de Merced as Amore are Spanish. They are appropriately different in timbre. Both are well-schooled voices that portray their relatively small but important roles in the evolving drama with good tone, clarity and expression.

In this reform work the orchestra and chorus are major protagonists. Peter Maag lets the music and his singers breathe. His pacing is not laggardly, nor does he try to imitate period instrument articulation and fast timing. The chorus are resonant, accurate and well disciplined. They sing with passion and commitment whether as Furies or with ethereal tone at the funeral urn (CD 1 trs. 2 and 5) or in the final Trionfi amore (Let’s have triumph of love, CD 2 tr. 20). The booklet has a brief essay in English, German, French and Italian. The libretto is printed in full with English translation. The audience is enthusiastic at the end. I am too, and strongly recommend this performance to all those not concerned about original version or period instrument performance.

Robert J Farr

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