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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Opera Explained Series. An Introduction to Orfeo ed Euridice

The casting of Orpheus - castrati
References to castrati; the different versions of Orfeo ed Euridice
Orfeo ed Euridice

The Overture
Act 1, Scene 1
Orfeo: 'Chiamo il mio ben cosi'
Amor enters
Act II: the gates of Hell
Orpheus plays his harp to the Furies
Act 2, Scene 2. ‘The Dance of the Blessed Spirits’
The chorus presents Euridice
Act 3. Orfeo and Euridice return from the Underworld
Duet for Orfeo and Euridice
Orfeo:'Che faro senza Euridice'
The happy ending
Musical illustrations taken from Naxos 8.660044: Orfeo, Ann-Christine Biel, cont; Euridice, Maya Boog, sop; Amor, Kerstin Averno, sop; Drottningholm Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Arnold Ostman.
Narrative written by Thomson Smillie and spoken by David Timson
NAXOS EDUCATIONAL Opera Explained Series 8.558122 [66.17]
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How would YOU start ‘An Introduction’ to Gluck’s great ‘reform’ opera ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’? Not, I suspect, with a brief musical extract from the work in question, followed by equally short samples of Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ and, least of all, Offenbach’s, ‘Orfée aus Enfers’ (Orpheus in the Underworld) famous for its ‘can-can’ and burlesque sending up of the legend. Yet that is part of the range of unexpected delights and the mixture of erudition and entertainment of this series. I have become increasingly enthusiastic about the series as I have learned facts new to me. Often I have been brought up short by the highlighting of musical connections which had hitherto never crossed my mind.

The erudite includes comments on the earliest known opera, Jacapo Peri’s (1561-1633) ‘Dafne’ (1597). His second, ‘Euridice’ (1600), the earliest known opera to have survived, is based on the legend concerning us here. After summarising the legend, the narrative suggests it was appealing for its shortness and variety of situations. Writers such as Virgil, Ovid, Milton, Cocteau and Shakespeare expounded it.

In respect of the Gluck opera, we are introduced to the fact that the composer wrote at least three distinct versions of the work whilst Berlioz (1869) and Wagner also had a go at making a definitive version of the composer’s efforts. Part of the reason for the different versions was Gluck’s casting of a contralto castrati in the title role in the first production. He made a French version for a production in Paris in 1774 with the name part transposed for tenor.

The matter of castrati is dealt with in some detail (tr. 2), not shrinking from the questions ‘could they’ and ‘did they’; the answer being yes, they could and did. The fact that offspring would not result made castrati attractive as lovers! The training and vocal skills of the renowned castrati are expounded as well as their androgynous fascination. Vocal skills could extend to a range of three octaves at full powerful voice allied to a capacity to hold a note for a full minute without breath, prodigious skills indeed and which commanded large fees. However, such skills were not the domain of every castrato, nor did all those who were emasculated develop voices that would earn even a modest living. They were emasculated in every sense of the word and doubtless psychologically crippled too. Track 3 blends consideration of the castrati with the development of Gluck’s various versions of the opera and the addition of ballet music for Paris. Gluck’s life and other works such as ‘Alceste’ are touched upon (tr. 4) as is the matter of ‘reform opera’, with an explanation of the meaning of that phrase which I, and ninety percent of commentators, will use when considering the composer’s works. The narrative moves on to the issue of ‘modern’ or ‘period’ instrument performance. This is examined and explained in the ideal way. It is illustrated by musical examples, in this case derived from Naxos recordings. The musical illustrations are succinct and to the point. They are taken from the Naxos’s complete version (Drottningholm/Ostman) from a live performance on period instruments. The clear recording is evident from the overture, which starts the second part of the CD (tr. 5). Here the musical extracts are illuminated by narrative explaining the musical and musicological context. A typical example is that examining the contralto voice type (tr. 7). Some might find the narrative interruption to the musical extract excessive. But this second part isn’t meant to be just the best musical bits highlighted. It is intended to extend understanding and enjoyment of this wonderful and much loved melodic work. In my view it achieves those objectives superbly. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced opera buff. I strongly recommend this disc to anyone contemplating purchase of the complete work or already owning a recording. It will greatly enhance your listening pleasure.

Robert J Farr

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