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

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 II, Scene 2. ‘The Dance of the Blessed Spirits’
The chorus presents Euridice
Act III. Orfeo and Euridice return from the Underworld
Duet for Orfeo and Euridice
Orfeo:'Che farò senza Euridice'
The happy ending
Musical illustrations taken from Naxos 8.660044:

Orfeo… Ann-Christine Biel (contralto)
Euridice… Maya Boog, (soprano)
Amor… Kerstin Avemo (soprano)
Drottningholm Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Arnold Östman.
NAXOS Opera Explained 8.558122 [66.17]

This ‘explanation’ is very much a curate’s egg. In parts it is extraordinarily good and in others it leaves a great deal to be desired. The presentation is in two parts: the CD and a slim booklet. The latter, in three parts, overviews opera in four paragraphs; this particular opera in six and provides a seriously brief synopsis. The inevitable consequences of overview are generalisations some of which seem questionable: "…opera perhaps reached its highest achievement with the mighty music dramas of Richard Wagner"; and of Italian opera "…there was a golden age, called the bel canto...". Really? Are those twenty-first, twentieth or nineteenth century opinions?

Much, but not all, of the booklet commentary and synopsis is repeated on the CD: respectfully it might have been preferable to let the CD stand alone. Here again the curate’s egg is laid. Continuing the thought of opera in its historical context, track 3 puts Dr. Bartolo’s music lesson and imitation castrato in historical context. Simply and superbly explained. However, when dealing with the biological aspects of castrati, the narrative descends into the ‘nudge-nudge wink-wink’ schoolboy humour with ‘could they, you know, did they’ question delivered with almost a prurient tone which I found inappropriate.

As an example of inconsistency, the background introduction (track 1) says of Orfeo, looking back at Euridice when leaving Hades, that he "…succumbed to the temptation to check on Euridice." No. He was driven to it: a point almost made clear in track 14 when dealing with this after Euridice’s protestations, "either as a result or perhaps in spite of this tirade, Orfeo succumbs". What is not made clear here is that the plot sets Orfeo two tests or trials: bravery and obedience. The former he passes by overcoming the Furies; the latter he fails. The god/human comparison is relevant. What loving husband whose wife cries piteously for help would not look at her.

The thumbnail sketch of Gluck’s career is helpful and to the point – save for the comment about the musical production school of "authenticity of sound – whatever that may be". A curious comment because a few sentences later it is stated that this recording "…tends towards… the school of authenticity…" which is going to be a bit difficult if you do not know what that phrase means.

I am sorry to say that the Naxos recording of the opera is not my favourite. I have reservations about the beauty of tone of Ann-Christine Biel and serious doubts about the chorus particularly as Furies which do not sound it. Whilst relevant to an understanding of the opera this is not fundamental to an explanation.

An appoggiatura (grace/leaning note) is explained concisely and clearly on the penultimate track and exemplified well. But why there? Would it not have been preferable to refer to this in the first scene (track 6), which drips with them, to enable the listener to identify them early and then to follow their importance as a musical feature throughout the opera.

There are frequent comments before, after and during the musical extracts played on tracks 5-16. Most are to the point. Much more could have been included if so long had not been spent on the background.

I am far from sure that 20 minutes on the background is justified. If you have a fascination for the facts relating to castrati, then enjoy it – but do remember, as the narrative makes clear, they were not around just for this opera. The essential 5 minutes or so of explanation of this opera which is included in the background, could have been better interwoven into the operatic extracts. Then there would have been more time for musical analysis with perhaps reference to the important keys and the music / action relationship. That may be beyond an "explanation" and entering the realm of analysis: a neat blurred edge upon which thought I leave you - save for a caveat.

It is only right that I should draw the attention of the reader to a contrary views to my own on this web site – see the review by Robert Farr and Em Marshall

Robert McKechnie


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