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Christoph GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice - Opera in three acts
Orfeo - Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
Euridice - Elisabeth Speiser (soprano)
Amore - Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
Produced by Peter Hall
Filmed at Glyndebourne in 1982.
DVD NVC ARTS 5050467-3921-2-0 [124mins]


For so many reasons, this is a production to savour. Intense performances of emotive music in classical settings: symbolism by the bucket load: theatrical gestures that make you almost cry out for joy. Overall it is not perfect but it is extraordinarily good.

Let me start with the question of which composition, or refinement, of the opera this is. By Gluck of 1762 for Vienna or 1774 for Paris; the Berlioz of 1859 or the Milan of 1884? DVDs provide little additional information – no booklets as with CDs. So I turned to the CD recording of this production (Erato:2292-45864-2) and Leppard’s notes in the accompanying booklet: "Broadly I chose whatever option was better". And by the time you have finished watching / listening you will be hard put to disagree – even if you think or care by then.

To repeat the obvious from above: Glyndebourne 1982. Thus the ‘old’ house with its enormously deep stage of which (now Sir) Peter Hall makes full and dramatic use. The action takes place on a pathway or slightly raised platform running front to back. A perfect vehicle for long continuous movement: Euridice walks front to back in the swirling mists; later she continues the same journey as she is brought forward in the Elysian Fields; the portcullis drops for Orfeo’s encounter with the Furies; and Orfeo’s journeys. It even encompasses the final rustic revelry which pours over into the auditorium – a bit of a liberty with Gluck and in my view not particularly well done.

I remind myself that this production was Dame Janet Baker’s last public operatic appearance. If you thought she was good, then, whatever else you have seen her in, ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. This is a quite staggering performance demonstrating beyond doubt that despite evidence to the contrary, in the 1980s there did exist divas who could act. Her commitment is always complete.

It would be totally remiss of me not to quote her own words about this from her autobiographical journal Full Circle:

"…only I can ever know what this desperate journey of Orfeo’s has done to me; … in the test of will and discipline involved in bringing Euridice back from the dead and obeying the god’s demand not to look at her, Orfeo fails. The gods know the fatal weakness in all of us and choose the very thing they know we cannot do. Of course Orfeo fails the test. Of course everybody does."


If that is not enough then consider this: Orfeo receives a lyre from the gods to help tame the Furies and is commanded to return it after he and Euridice are finally re-united. Of the handing back Dame Janet said in her book:

"The fleeting thought came to me: Are you really handing back this symbol of your art with a pure intention? Are you truly relinquishing the power you have been lent? And back came my answer: ‘I am’. A symbol of an ending…"

With that background it is a surprise that she had not performed this role more frequently; so no surprise that her freshness, emotion and drama are outstanding. Vocally I think she is difficult to fault. Whilst her opening repeated cry of Euridice might not be as forte as if someone was sawing through her bone (Gluck direction) she packs so much anguish into the thrice repeated cried name that more would be self-defeating.

This production includes the full aria at the end of Act I with coloratura that Dame Janet despatches so effortlessly that you forget just how difficult it is. Che puro ciel is sung with gentleness and wonder; Che farò senza with heart rending torment. That unfairly selects two moments: all is certainty of voice and dramatic commitment: a truly memorable performance.

And that ignores many ‘pure theatre’ touches that for me typify the completeness of detail in this production. Two examples will suffice: first, having calmed the Furies she is about to continue her journey when with the back of her hand she strokes the quizzical cheek of one of them. Later, when kneeling and holding the now dead for the second time Euridice, she grievingly rocks gently back and forth.

For me Dame Janet is perfect in this role. I am somewhat less enthusiastic about Elisabeth Speiser’s Euridice. She seems to ‘hold back’. Would this Euridice provoke her husband into failing the test and turning to look at her? That said this is not a temper-tantrum Euridice but a saddened wife. She has an occasional slight sharpness of timbre made more evident by the contrast with the warm, smooth, honey-toned Dame Janet. Of course, the inevitable consequential advantage is that in the duets there is a quite excellent vocal balance.

Elizabeth Gale’s Amore, vocally ringing and sharply focused seems to me to be far too worldly. If she stepped off her flying pedestal then you would only know the godly element from the wings. A far too alluring costume and performance from a very cheerful god; but perhaps that is what Amore should be: a strong contrast with earthly seriousness and endeavour.

The CD recording of this production, recorded at Brent Town Hall in August 1982, is free from sound interference - all is crystal clear. However on the DVD, filmed at Glyndebourne in 1982, there are occasions when the sound at forte seems to be suddenly closed down a few decibels and made almost husky. Also for Amore's entrance aria the orchestra is just a little loud thereby obscuring the words.

For the most part the orchestra is good; very good. The accompaniment to the Furies, in a visually evocative scene, is stirring if not frenzied. The contrast could not be greater with the orchestral smooth calling back and forth with superb phrasing about the delights of the Elysian Fields.

The chorus is outstanding: of fire, brimstone, aggressive movement and singing for the Furies; and amazing slow motion as Elysian Heroes and Heroines; with the pastoral dances to conclude.

Ignoring the Dame Janet introduction, which is a bit reminiscent of 3.00pm on Christmas Day, and the stuffed-shirt mostly non-DJ-ed audience at the end (who should have been cheering and shouting if not leaping up and down), this is a great DVD. Great performances. Great theatre.

Robert McKechnie


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