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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Orphée et Eurydice (1774) (ed. Hector Berlioz)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo) – Orphée; Barbara Hendricks (soprano) – Eurydice; Brigitte Fournier (soprano) – Cupid;
Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Lyon/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 29 January–2 February 1989, Auditorium Maurice Ravel, Lyon
Full libretto and translations at  
EMI CLASSICS 5091612 [41:52 + 47:55]
Experience Classicsonline

Gluck composed his reform opera for Vienna in 1762 in Italian and with a castrato in the title role. Later, in 1774 he reworked the opera for Paris, adding ballet music, which was a ‘must’ in that city, and rewrote the title role for a high tenor – haute-contre. Almost a century later Hector Berlioz made his own edition – the main reason being that the score had been arranged by various hands and he wanted to bring it back to Gluck’s original ideas. However, since Berlioz had the famous Pauline Viardot available he transcribed the title role for contralto. This is also the version that has been commonly used ever since but again with various changes, most commonly translating it back to Italian. Latterly Gluck’s first thoughts for Vienna have been reinstated, often with a counter-tenor as Orfeo. In other words there are many variations on the Orfeo theme and this Berlioz version is valuable. This is also the version that is used in the current Stockholm production, which I reviewed a few months ago, where Anne Sofie von Otter alternates with Anna Larsson in the title role.
Strictly speaking this isn’t the ‘real’ Berlioz version, since Gardiner has reinstated some music that Berlioz omitted, no doubt to heighten the tension. I hadn’t heard this set before in full and was slightly disappointed that it felt so laid-back. The playing of the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon is superlative and the Monteverdi Choir, fairly forwardly balanced, sing with their accustomed poise and perfect intonation. However the drama is a rather underplayed. I have long admired Gardiner’s Iphigénie en Tauride, recorded a couple of years earlier, where the drama is more to the fore; here there is too much oratorio about some passages and the ballet music is neatly played but too polite. There was much more fizz about Sir Richard Armstrong’s reading in Stockholm.
But Gardiner has the same trump card as Armstrong, namely Anne Sofie von Otter as Orphée. She was superb in all respects in Stockholm, vocally as well as scenically. Almost twenty years ago she was marginally fresher of voice – but only marginally – and it is a pity that her voice is accorded a recessed balance in relation to the choir. This matters little when her reading is so superb. The big aria that ends act 1, Amour, viens render à mon âme, is brilliant with fluent coloratura. Quel nouveau ciel in act 2 is celestial. As for J’ai perdu mon Eurydice in act 3, better known as Che faro in the Italian version, it is deeply felt  but classically controlled and forward-moving without being rushed. I haven’t heard all the various Orphées and Orfeos on record but it is hard to imagine the part better performed.
Brigitte Fournier’s bright soprano is ideally contrasted as Cupid and Barbara Hendricks’s Eurydice is frankly the best thing I have heard from her in an operatic role: dramatic, expressive and ravishingly beautiful. Her aria Fortune ennemie, quelle barbarie in act 3 should convert anyone who regards Hendricks as an inexpressive singer.
The recording is good but with a couple of question-marks concerning the balance of von Otter vis-à-vis the choir. There is a good essay and synopsis by Roger Nichols. The libretto is available on the internet.
Those who want Gluck’s 1774 version unadulterated and with a haute-contre in the title role will find a lot to admire in the Naxos recording with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Orphée (see review), but for the exalted level of singing from choir and soloists and in particular Anne Sofie von Otter’s all-embracing reading of Orphée the present set requires to be heard by all lovers of this opera.
Göran Forsling


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