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An introduction to Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

Written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson

Recorded at Motivation Sound Studios, London, 2004. DDD

NAXOS OPERA EXPLAINED 8.558122 [66.17]


The Naxos Opera Explained series is part of Naxos Educational, an innovative section of the Naxos catalogue that also includes a Life and Works and Classics Explained series. As yet Naxos have erred on the side of caution and conservatism by not delving too deeply into lesser-known composers or works. Presently only about half a dozen composers are included and roughly the same number of works. One hopes that in due course this series will expand to include all the great composers and a significant number of slightly less well-established classics. The Opera Explained series includes about twenty titles ranging from Donizetti and Bizet to Verdi and Puccini. The series has begun to branch out a little and we now have an introduction to Beethoven's Fidelio as well as to Wagnerís Flying Dutchman. One hopes that less familiar and more difficult operas will be included, and would also hope that British operas are better represented in due course.

Of course, there are many sources and introductions to opera. They range from series such as those by Grove and Kobbé, as well as books dedicated to individual operas or composers. However, many potential opera-goers are put off not only by the lack of knowledge of the story but also by unfamiliarity with anything but the best-known arias within the opera. Opera also tends to be rather elitist which makes going to an unfamiliar opera rather daunting for the novice. Series such as this, which include an introduction to the opera as well as musical illustrations, therefore serve a very useful purpose. Over the years I have become familiar with the Glyndebourne Opera Bites series on CD which now runs to over 30 titles, most considering two works on one CD. There is, for example, an excellent introduction to most of Benjamin Brittenís operas including one on Owen Wingrave and the Turn Of the screw, with texts by Michael Kennedy. I can heartily recommend that an opera-goer unfamiliar with these operas listens to this disc (as well as others in the series) to get an idea of what the operas are about. One notes that Opera Bites does a rival version of Orfeo ed Euridice that also includes Iphigénie and has about the same time allocated to the work itself as on this Naxos disc.

Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice is the latest in the Naxos Opera Explained series. It is written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson, as is the case for the whole of this series so far, thus differing from the Opera Bites series, which generally uses different authors and narrators for each disc. The disc lasts slightly over an hour and begins with a consideration of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice and the many different operatic versions of the myth, including that by Monteverdi. Significantly, Gluck decided to use the version of Greek mythology that has a happy ending! One of the most interesting parts of this background was the reference to castrati. The potential of what was essentially a woman's voice in a man's body and the enormous vocal range, power and tone was considerable, and was fully exploited by contemporary composers. One is then left wondering how we will ever be able to get a satisfactory performance of some of these works today. (The role of Orpheus is now usually taken by a contralto). It was enlightening to hear that castrati were employed by the Vatican well into the last century, and the disc includes a snatch of a recording made in 1913 by the last of the castrati to be employed by the Vatican. There is also a significant biographical note on Gluck and his tremendous influence on the transition of opera from Monteverdi's day through Mozart and then well into the 19th century. There is also a short reference to the use and abuse of modern instruments in the portrayal of operas written in the 18th century. This is obviously a controversial subject but it is welcome to have some reference to it. However, I was personally a bit peeved by the statement that this opera is the first modern opera and to Che faro senza Euridice as the first great aria in opera. In the latter case, certainly, this acclamation should be given to Dido's lament in Purcellís Dido and Aeneas!

Following the background information, about 35 minutes is allocated to a description of the opera itself, punctuated by short musical excerpts. This gives one a very good idea of the opera as it unfolds. However, it would have been nice to have heard a little bit more of the music than the brief excerpts allowed, although the fact that the full opera itself is available on another disc from Naxos using the same performers solves this problem. The performance is by the Drottningholm Theatre Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Arnold Ostman, and the highlights of the opera as presented here are very well sung and played.

All in all, this is a well-presented disc that offers both interesting and useful relevant information as well as a chance to become familiar with the music without having to listen to the entire piece. Whilst personally, I would prefer to become acquainted with an opera through sitting through the entire work, this disc certainly has its place and could be an invaluable source for first time (or nervous!) opera-goers.

Em Marshall

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