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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1678-1741) Orfeo ed Euridice (excerpts)
Orfeo – Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
Euridice – Elisabeth Speiser (soprano)
Amore – Elizabeth Gale (soprano)
Jean Mallandaine (harpsichord)
The Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
Recorded Brent Town Hall, 1982
WARNER APEX 2564 61497-2 [74.21]

This recording was produced in association with the Glyndebourne performances of the opera which formed part of Dame Janet Baker’s farewell to the operatic stage. Here, the recording is issued as edited highlights on one CD.

The virtues and disadvantages of the recording are well known. Glyndebourne decided to use the Italian Ricordi Edition, based largely on the version Berlioz made for mezzo-soprano. It thus corresponds to no known version by Gluck, but conflates the ‘best bits’ from his own Italian and French versions (the latter, of course, written for haut-contre rather than castrato). Conductor Raymond Leppard included rather more of Gluck’s ballet music than usual and this proved one of the complete recording’s additional attractions as Leppard’s handling of the dance sections is assured and dramatic.

Janet Baker’s performance in the title role is as stunning as ever. But this was her farewell to the operatic stage and I could have wished she had recorded the role earlier on in her career. But there are still great moments. In the highlights we are deprived of her cries of Euridice in the opening scene. But ‘Addio, addio, o miei sospiri’ is brilliantly done. This virtuoso aria has a dubious place in the Gluck canon, but here Baker makes light of the virtuoso elements to form an emotional and appealing performance. As Amore, Elizabeth Gale is charming and perfectly adequate, but somehow I wanted more. It did not help that, rather unfairly perhaps, I found her vibrato a little intrusive.

A drawback of this disc of highlights is the way the opera has been edited down. I felt that in Act 1, skipping directly from Orfeo’s rather short, ‘Chiamo il mio ben cosi’ directly to Amore’s ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ was too uncomfortable. The first Act as presented here is an assemblage of musical highlights which fails to give much sense of Gluck’s dramatic sense. This is a shame as Leppard’s account of the opening sinfonia is full of drama.

Things are better in Act II, where we are treated to a satisfactory dramatic sequence as Orfeo charms the furies guarding the Elysian Fields. The Glyndebourne chorus are on strong form here and Baker’s emotionally powerful Orfeo rightly triumphs. Elisabeth Speiser’s Euridice is rather a disappointment and I found her only adequate. Her role is heavily cut in the highlights so that the surviving two items opening the Act simply form a prelude to Baker’s haunting and concentrated account of ‘Che faro’, but sense of the drama is lost.

The disc concludes a sequence of final choruses and ballets. Whilst Leppard’s handling of these is masterly, given that Gluck’s opera had to be filleted down to fit onto a single disc, I felt that we could usefully have lost some ballet and gained a little more of Gluck’s drama.

This is probably not a disc suitable for somebody wanting to explore this opera for the first time, too much of Gluck’s fine sense of classical structure is lost as the drama is reduced to a series of musical highlights. But what fine music making it is; certainly this is a disc for someone wanting a memento of Dame Janet’s Orfeo without adding yet another complete version to the library shelves.

Robert Hugill

see also

Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787) Opera Explained Series. An Introduction to Orfeo ed Euridice written by Thomson Smillie; narrated by David Timson NAXOS Opera Explained 8.558122 [66.17]

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