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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice [100:43]
Kerstin Thorborg (Orfeo – mezzo); Jarmila Novotna (Euridice – soprano); Marita Farell (Amore – soprano); Annamary Dickey (Blessed Spirit – soprano); Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera/Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded 20 January 1940 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Broadcast commentary included.
Interview with Kerstin Thorborg [18:16] – date and interviewer unknown

Orfeo ed Euridice: Che farò senza Euridice (in German) [03:17]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Das Rheingold: Weiche, Wotan, Weiche [03:56], Die Walküre: So ist’s denn aus [02:48], Deiner ew’gen Gattin [02:25], Götterdämmerung: Höre mit Sinn was ich sage! [08:20], Tristan und Isolde: Einsam wachend [04:32], Parsifal: Ich sah das kind (05:31]
Kerstin Thorborg (mezzo), Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Frieder Weissman (Gluck), RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Karl Riedel (Wagner)
Recorded 26 June 1933 (Gluck), 8 May 1940 (Wagner), venues not given
GUILD GHCD 2317/18 [72:26 + 79:33]

Since I have some reservations to make, I should like to start by saying that I put this on without great enthusiasm, supposing that primitive sound and old-fashioned performance practices would make it advisable to hear one act at a time. Instead, I listened to the whole opera without a break, and really enjoyed it far more than the "authentic" Naxos recording of the "pure" French version which came my way recently - review.

Here, then, is another piece of Met history. Following Toscanini’s performances with Louise Homer in 1914, Orfeo ed Euridice was not heard again there until 1938 when Bodanzky revived it with Kerstin Thorborg. Further performances followed in 1939. After Bodanzky’s death that year the young Erich Leinsdorf took over the German repertoire at the Met and consequently was at the helm for the present 1940 live broadcast. A year later the production was repeated for four performances directed by Bruno Walter, with whom Thorborg had already sung the role in Vienna and Salzburg. No Walter performance has come down to us, so our knowledge of Thorborg’s celebrated interpretation depends on the 1940 revival under Leinsdorf. It can be appreciated in sound which is mostly firm and clear and is really as good as we have a right to expect for this sort of thing.

Bodanzky was a notable cutter and adapter (he wrote his own recitatives for Fidelio) and, though Richard Caniell refers to Leinsdorf’s version of the score I should have thought it more likely that the young conductor was simply briefed to play Bodanzky’s score as it stood; certainly, the omission of the overture and the foreshortening of the first scene of Act Three sound more like Bodanzky ideas than Leinsdorf ones. When a conductor of Walter’s experience arrived a year later it was another matter and he opened out these cuts.

On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the shape of the music on this occasion was Leinsdorf’s own. He takes a powerfully tragic view from the outset, with slowish tempi which are nevertheless propelled forward inevitably by a purposeful rhythmic tread. When he lets fly in the Dance of the Furies the result is fearsome indeed. Caniell is pretty rude about this aspect of Leinsdorf’s treatment of the score but I must say I found it exciting. Here and in the Chaconne the conductor’s clear textures and sizzling articulation seem a blueprint for many of today’s "authentic" performances and, while an "original instruments" conductor today would probably take the Dance of the Blessed Spirits faster (Ryan Brown certainly does on the Naxos issue I mentioned above), the cool detailing of Leinsdorf’s response nonetheless seems closer to our own day than to his. My reservation, and this is where Leinsdorf still today divides opinion, is that while I was certainly gripped, my involvement remained intellectual rather than emotional, presumably because Leinsdorf’s own involvement was so. No doubt Bruno Walter infused the work with greater humanity, and if we can only guess at the results, maybe the audiences at La Scala heard something along the same lines, Gluck’s classical world illuminated by a romantic Claudian glow, when Furtwängler conducted the opera there in 1951, with Fedora Barbieri and Hilde Gueden, a recording of which has survived and was recently reviewed for the site by my colleague Jonathan Woolf.

Kerstin Thorborg was the Orfeo of her generation, only too briefly succeeded by the short-lived Kathleen Ferrier. Her powerful, dark voice carries chest resonances which mean that at times she can almost seem a male alto, while at others she takes on a more feminine hue. It is a stately, dignified interpretation with a notably clearer enunciation of the words than any of the other singers here provide – though in comparison with a native Italian like Barbieri she is perhaps too careful, and her "Rs" are decidedly Teutonic. Barbieri is much more overtly passionate. While Thorborg seems to fit admirably with Leinsdorf’s interpretation, a suggestion that she might have wished something different comes with her 1933 recording (in German) of the opera’s most famous aria. Here the conductor allows a slower tempo, about the same as the famous Ferrier recording in English; Leinsdorf is not as fast as Stiedry in Ferrier’s Glyndebourne recording, a tempo which Ferrier didn’t like at all, but he keeps things moving pretty purposefully. With this framework, Thorborg offers in 1933 a much more intimate, withdrawn and obviously heartfelt reading. But the sheer size of the Met, as well as the conductor, may have contributed to her more "public" manner in 1940.

The other parts in this opera do not have a lot to do; Novotna is an attractive Euridice, Marita Farell a soubrettish Amore. Chorus and orchestra are a good deal more precise than they tended to be in Europe in those days. The broadcast announcements at the beginning and end of each act have been preserved and the set is completed by a quite long interview with Thorborg and some Wagner extracts. The date of the interview is not known, and nor is the interviewer, though from the sound of her voice and the reference to a number of her colleagues in the past tense it must have been post-1962 (Thorborg died in 1970). The Wagner extracts show her wonderfully even voice, rich and gleaming in every register, her exemplary technical control and her fine musicianship. They also suggest, and the interview confirms, that she may have been a most professional singer and a considerate, hardworking colleague, but perhaps not aflame with inspiration, especially when inspiration is signally lacking in Karl Riedel’s accompaniments. With an inspiring presence on the rostrum it was no doubt another story, and she was by all accounts a striking presence and a fine actor.

One or two aspects of production call for comment. Firstly, it was reprehensible indeed not to name the conductors and orchestras of the 1933 Gluck and the Wagner extracts (I have reinstated them after an Internet search). Secondly, while Richard Caniell refers to the considerable research which took place to trace the version of the score and libretto used, obviously those concerned did not look at the libretto which accompanies the Monteux performance with Risë Stevens which, though recorded in Rome, actually documents the 1955 Met revival. Had they done so, they would not have needed to label CD1 track 6 lamely as "Ritornello" when Thorborg can be heard to sing "Restar vogl’io" with perfect clarity, nor to call track 14 "Si les doux accords de ta lyre" when Marita Farell’s Italian, though poor, is not so bad you could mistake it for French, or doubt that she is singing "Se il dolce suon de la tua lira", nor to exchange "Vivr’Amore" for "Divo Amore". Above all, they need not have given up the ghost at track 33, providing "E’ quest’asilo ameno e grato" from another source, when the words "Questo asilo di placide calme" can be heard without any difficulty. Textual variations between the Leinsdorf and Monteux versions are in fact minimal in the first two acts, more substantial in the third; it would appear that the Met was still using the same material in 1955, plus Walter’s reinstatements.

The origin of all this confusion lies in the fact that, while Jonathan Wearn and Professor Hugh MacDonald, on behalf of Guild, have correctly taken into account the three primary sources – the Italian version (Vienna 1762), the French version (Paris 1774) and Berlioz’s conflation of the two (Paris 1859) – they seem not to have borne in mind that most performances up to the mid-20th Century used neither of these but the so-called "Ricordi version", or something like it, which was basically the Berlioz version back-translated into Italian. This was necessary because Gluck added new music for the French version, and revised other parts, so Calzabigi’s Italian libretto cannot e sung "straight" to the French version. Track 33 is a good example of this, since "E’ quest’asilo ameno e grato" is a literal translation of the French "Cet asile, aimable et tranquille", which is in its turn a free rendering of "Questo asilo di placide calme". So a range of variants grew up which basically accepted the Berlioz as their musical text, but fiddled around with the Italian words. Furtwängler’s performance is musically more or less the same as Leinsdorf’s (with the Overture reinstated and some variations towards the end), but often substitutes a different sung text.

Lastly, Guild claim that "Che farò senza Euridice?" is sung by Euridice herself, an unlikely state of affairs.

In spite of my comments, if you don’t mind 1940 sound and want an austerely tragic, but vital, view of this opera, this issue is a good deal more than a collector’s piece.

Christopher Howell

see also review from Jonathan Woolf



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