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Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1678-1741)
Orfeo ed Euridice

Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo soprano) – Orfeo
Jarmila Novotna (soprano) – Euridice
Marita Farell (soprano) – Amore
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded live, New York, 20 January 1940
Orfeo ed Euridice – extracts

Kerstin Thorborg – Orfeo
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Artur Bodanzky
Recorded New York, 26 November 1938
WALHALL WLCD 008 [72.18 + 77.57]


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This performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice comes live from the Met in 1940 and was the first staging at the house since Toscanini’s 25 years earlier. The star is Thorborg, better known as a towering Wagnerian but who had performed the part to acclaim under Bruno Walter. Her Euridice is the newly arrived Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna, who had only recently made her Met debut in La Bohème. She’d hurriedly left Vienna following the Anschluss having already inspired Lehár to write for her (Giuditta, 1934) and Toscanini, reputedly, to fall in love with her.

The acetate discs have suffered some damage with surface scuffing and some swishes, noticeable very early on; the Chorus is diffusely captured, but the orchestra under the young-ish Leinsdorf manages to be both expressive (with some old fashioned rallentandi) and forward moving – fortunately so as Leinsdorf tended to sprint through his Wagner nights at the Met - and he applies the same sort of solution to this most static and columnar of operas.

Thorborg is especially strong when the music sits in the middle of her voice; sometimes lower down she can lack a degree of projection. Her powers of histrionic impersonation are very much there but seldom, if ever, overdone and the gravity and nobility of her assumption is tangible. Che farò is taken at a very reasonable, non dirge-like tempo – she is, unlike Ferrier, conversational with it, though there is a massive slow down in the central section, as was the custom. Novotna had studied under Max Reinhardt in her Berlin days and was a consummate singer-actor, even this early in her career. She is expressive, less so than Thorborg perhaps, or less explicitly so, but affecting nonetheless. The voice itself is quite superb. As Amor, Marita Farell can be a bit "pipy."

So yes there are problems despite the two principals and Leinsdorf. There’s quite an abrupt side change between Deh! Placatevi con me and the passage beginning Mille pene; there’s also an alarming pitch drop in Che puro ciel. The sound is certainly generally listenable – which is more than can be said for the extracts from the 1938 Orfeo, with Thorborg and this time Bodanzky presiding. The best thing about these extracts is the radio interference from another American station that does add some pep to the proceedings; otherwise it’s so murky as to be unlistenable.

I’m not aware that there are any competing versions of the 1940 Orfeo at the moment; given that there are no notes at all, just a cast and track list, this seems to be natural Guild territory. In the meantime a cautious welcome to this set.

Jonathan Woolf

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