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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orphée et Euridice (1774 Paris version) [85:43]
Jean-Paul Gouchécourt (Orphée, tenor), Catherine Dubosc (Euridice, soprano), Suzie Le Blanc (Amour, soprano), Opera Lafayette Orchestra and Chorus/Ryan Brown
rec. 11-15 Jan 2002, Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, University of Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.660185-86 [41:03 + 44:60]

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It may seem strange in our urtext-minded age that Gluck’s most famous opera is still generally known in a hybrid version, the excuse being that the original Vienna edition (in Italian) is more succinctly dramatic, and so deserves to be followed in the main, but that some of the extra music added for Paris in 1774 (notably the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” with its famous flute solo) is too good to lose. The hybrid had its origins in Berlioz, whose 1859 version became standard in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but even those who today return to the Gluck original often pick and choose among versions. Another major difference is that the original had a castrato Orpheus and the Paris version a high tenor; it was Berlioz who assigned the part to a contralto.

Here, then, is a fairly rare opportunity to here the Paris version unadulterated, played by an expert band of period instruments whose open sonorities at the beginning of the overture are a joy to hear. Particularly effective are the braying sounds from the brass at the beginning of Act 2, showing that Gluck could be quite as powerful and original as Berlioz, even without Berlioz to help him out.

However, the news is not all so good. It quickly becomes evident that this is another of those period groups for whom actual long-term musical phrasing is a romantic accretion, to be substituted with a heavily regular ONE two three, ONE two three. This can be got used to, up to a point, especially when the orchestra is in an accompanying role.

And then there is the question of tempi. At 85:43, the Paris version, though considerably more extended than the Vienna one, is made to appear so short as almost to require the opera to be presented in a double bill. Timings are fairly useless when different versions are used, but for what it’s worth Pierre Monteux’s 1957 recording (the conductor’s interesting conception ruined by Risë Stevens’s blowsy Orpheus) takes 130:21. He appears to be basically following the Berlioz version, translated back into Italian; comparing the librettos of the two sets there doesn’t appear to be that much difference in the actual music included except that Monteux doesn’t give the final aria of Act 1 (probably not by Gluck) but does give the Act 3 pantomime, all 18:32 of it, which was written for Paris, but in 1776 and so is not included in this “pure” 1774 version. So having accounted for a fifteen minutes’ difference or thereabouts with extra music on the Monteux, the remaining 30 minutes would seem to be a matter of tempi. I haven’t reinvestigated exactly what Furtwängler played at La Scala in 1951, presumably some form of Berlioz with cuts, but he took 108 minutes over it.

Blowing the cobwebs away or taking the substance out of the music? The “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” is almost unrecognizable at times, played at about double the tempo of the Fritz Reiner performance I got to know the piece by. Gluck’s marking is “Lent et trés doux”, which is not the same as “Trés lent et doux”, but to my ears this is Allegretto. At the close of Act Two Orpheus is conducted towards Eurydice to the strains of a courtly minuet and the aria we used to know as “What is life without thee?” gambols along amiably and elegantly. The idea that Orpheus should sound at least a wee bit sorry at having had his wife die for the second time is evidently considered another cobweb to be blown away.

For better or worse, the result is a perfect counterpart to the French art of Watteau  or Fragonard, all very calm with the emotions stylised and set in a frame, and very rococo with its frills and fripperies. In the air “Quel nouveau ciel” Orpheus is borne on the delicately hued orchestral backdrop like a cherub on a puffy white cloud.

Into this conception the mellifluous tenor of Jean-Paul Fouchécourt fits perfectly. Unfazed by the highest writing or by the abundant virtuosity required in the first act aria, his is a beautifully considered, restrained neo-classical assumption (allowing a touch more emotion in the recitatives than in the arias), just about as far removed as anything can be from the deeply felt, emotional interpretations of the Ferrier-Baker tradition. Suzie Le Blanc’s Amour matches him well but Catherine Dubosc, whose curriculum shows her not to be an early music specialist like the others, offers a more conventional operatic style.

This is, after all, the French version, and it can only be salutary to be made to think again about a work we might think we know well. Given the interpretative viewpoint it is carried through with consistency, style and a great deal of thought.  The trouble is that, having duly thought about it all, I remain perplexed.

Gluck’s aim in his “Reform Opera” was to revive the ideals of classical tragedy, to remove the frills of operatic convention and replace them with straightforward, direct emotions. Or so we have always been told, and such discerning admirers as Berlioz and Brahms believed he had succeeded. The first edition of Grove stated that “He grasped the idea that the mission of music was not merely to afford gratification to the senses, and he proved that the expression of moral qualities is within her reach… He aimed at depicting historic or legendary characters and antique social life, and in this work of genius he put into the mouth of each of his heroes accents suited to their sentiments, and to the spirit of the times in which they lived…. All his French operas show him to have been a noble musician, a true poet, and a deep thinker”. In the early 20th Century Stanford wrote that “He had assimilated all the vital points of Greek tragedy … Opera, instead of being a mere mannequin to show off the airs and graces of the performers, became a living entity in which the language, the action, the scenery, and the music went to make an artistic whole” (Stanford/Forsyth: A History of Music, MacMillan 1916).

Romantic twaddle? If it is, the uncomfortable feeling remains that in the days of the Ferriers and the Furtwänglers (not together, alas) this opera provided an altogether deeper experience. What we get here is a nice little performance of a nice little opera, and if you think this is really no more than a nice little opera then it’ll suit you fine. For me, the baby’s gone out with the bathwater.

The sound is excellent and there is a complete libretto with translation – not something to be taken for granted with Naxos who more usually provide just a synopsis. However, certain other features of the production require comment. Having listed individually every member of the orchestra and chorus, it seems odd not to tell us who sings the part of the Ombre Heureuse. I’ve never encountered an operatic recording with so few tracks – just two for the Third Act, the first lasting 17:03  and containing all sorts of airs and duets, notably “J’ai perdu mon Euridice”, which the listener might wish to have indexed. One doesn’t make too much of short playing time at the Naxos price but, while respecting the purity of the 1774 version, might we not have had the 1776 Pantomime as an appendix?

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Göran Forsling




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