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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Orphée et Euridice (1774 Paris Version)

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor) – Orphée;
Caterine Dubose (soprano) – Euridice;
Suzie Le Blanc (soprano) – Amour
Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus/Ryan Brown
rec. Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, University of Maryland, USA, 11-15 Jan 2002
NAXOS 8.660185-86 [41:03 + 44:40]

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Gluck’s reform opera exists in two different versions by his own hand plus a much later version by Hector Berlioz. The original, written for Vienna in 1762, was in Italian and the title part was written for a castrato. Then in 1774 he revised and expanded it for Paris with the title part for tenor voice. In 1859 Hector Berlioz made his version, again for Paris, and with the title part for contralto. This version has become more or less the standard, although translated back into Italian. It is also the version which has been recorded most often, but there have been amendments and permutations so one can safely say that there has never been a "standard" Orpheus. Here though we have a Paris Orphée in what can be labelled the original layout, since the recording is based upon what was heard in Paris on 2nd August 1774. The conductor, Ryan Brown, has consulted the performing materials for that event and decided that this is what Gluck had expected to hear. This includes the arietta L’espoir renaît in act 1, which was not performed at the premiere since the tenor Legros obviously wasn’t up to the technical demands of the aria; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt definitely is.

There have been a couple of earlier recordings of the Paris version: in the 1950s both Leopold Simoneau and Nicolai Gedda starred in the title part. I haven’t heard the Simoneau and didn’t have Gedda’s at hand for comparison but at least I had two of the great arias on a portrait disc. On this evidence I could at once decide that Gedda’s is a more starry performance but that stylistically Fouchécourt has nothing to fear. Gedda’s is a 19th century hero while Fouchécourt belongs in the right century. His is a most winning assumption of the title part: beautiful, light of voice, agile and keen on words. His coloratura singing is beyond reproach and he embellishes the third stanza of J’ai perdu mon Euridice ("Che faro senza Euridice" in the more well-known Italian version) delicately but unobtrusively. It isn’t a big voice but it is flexible and feels "right". It is difficult to imagine a better interpretation.

This recording actually a winner in most respects. It is lively and rhythmically alert with splendid playing on period instruments and the chorus is also very good. It is a dramatic performance of a work that can easily become boring. Here though it oozes life. The overture at once tells us that this is not going to be a sleeping-pill. And listen to the introduction to act 2, where Brown enhances the darkness of the orchestral writing and makes us feel very close to Hades – maybe too close for comfort. The Dance of the Furies, which ends the second act, is appropriately menacing at a rollicking speed – a contradiction in terms, maybe – and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits in the Elysian Fields is gently rocking with fine flute playing by – I suppose – Colin St. Martin. The introduction to Euridice’s short air Cet asile is played with the lilt of a group of folk music fiddlers. Absolutely enchanting!

Of the three soloists Orphée carries the heaviest burden, and it is, as I have already implied, executed quite marvellously by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Suzie Le Blanc, sings the small part of Amour as well as anyone I know. When it comes to Catherine Dubose I am in two minds. She has a quite penetrating, powerful and vibrant voice that threatens to swamp Orphée in their big act three duet, and they don’t blend too well. On the other hand she can sing softly and sincerely and can use her vibrato as a means of expression. Still she sounds more at home in the 19th century. But of course every performance and recording of this opera stands or falls on the singing of the eponymous hero. Whatever the merits of the Simoneau and Gedda sets (both in mono only), the one under consideration now has to be recommended to anyone wanting the Paris version. The booklet has a very good essay by Ryan Brown concerning what is included and why. There is a further essay about Gluck and Reform Opera by the indefatigable Keith Anderson (he must by now have contributed to the general listeners’ knowledge of music more than anyone in history) who also presents a good synopsis. Add to this the complete French text plus an English translation and everything in the garden would have been lovely, were it not for the fact that there are far too few tracks. The first CD has 6, the second only 4, meaning for instance that to listen to Orphée’s J’ai perdu mon Euridice, which I suppose everybody wants to, especially when it is so marvellously sung, you have to programme in track 3 of CD 2 and then "fast forward" to 13’31, which on my machine takes at least five minutes. Whoever made this decision it was extremely user-unfriendly and merits a skull-and-crossbones marking. Otherwise this is "must-buy".

Göran Forsling

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