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Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice (Ricordi version, sung in Italian) (abridged) (1762/1774/1859) [54.30]
Alceste (excerpts) (Vienna version, sung in Italian) (1767) [21.40]
Orfeo – Kathleen Ferrier (contralto) (1); Amor – Ann Ayars (soprano) (1); Euridice – Zoe Vlachopoulos (1); Alceste – Kirsten Flagstad (soprano) (2); Glyndebourne Festival Chorus (1); Geraint Jones Singers (2); Southern Philharmonic Orchestra (1); Geraint Jones Orchestra (2); Fritz Stiedry (conductor) (1); Geraint Jones (conductor) (2)
rec. (1) Glyndebourne, 1947; (2) 1956
ALTO ALC1034 [76.12]
Experience Classicsonline

Kathleen Ferrier made her stage debut in 1946 in the rather uneasy season which saw Glyndebourne collaborating with the English Opera Group, performing Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. She returned to Glyndebourne the following year, for Gluck’s Orfeo, her only other operatic role. As was common at the time, the version used was based on the Ricordi Edition - an Italianisation of Berlioz’s conflation of the alto castro Vienna version and the haute-contre Paris version into a vehicle for a female mezzo-soprano.

Ferrier’s experiences in the Glyndebourne Orfeo were none to happy. Carl Ebert’s production was not completely satisfactory and the conductor, Fritz Stiedry, was critical of Ferrier’s acting skills and rather undermined her performance. The audience, on the other hand, were extremely enthusiastic. She went on to perform the role twice more, at the Holland Festival and at Covent Garden. The Covent Garden production was directed by Frederick Ashton and conducted by John Barbirolli; Ferrier was seriously ill at the time and only managed two performances.

We are lucky that Glyndebourne went into the studio to record this abridged Orfeo. The abridgement is well done and there are only a couple of places where it is apparent. Orfeo’s showpiece aria at the end of Act 1 is missing and Act 1 ends rather abruptly. Similarly the transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 in Act 2 is rather abrupt. But on the whole it is possible to listen to this version without worrying about the fact that cuts have been made - the performance works supremely well as a single entity.

The swiftness of the drama, engendered by the cuts, is mirrored by the fluidity and swiftness of Stiedry’s tempi. These do not sound old-fashioned and sluggish; in fact they sound quite modern. The only moment which stood out is the chorus of Furies at the opening of Act 2. Here Stiedry’s tempo is so deliberately steady that I can only assume this must be intentional characterisation.

Whilst this is a welcome record of Ferrier in one of her great roles, it must be admitted that her performance is a little stiff at times. EMI have issued the radio broadcast of one of the Holland Festival performances. Though this suffers from poor to indifferent sound, it is notable that Ferrier’s performance seems freer and deeper. Perhaps she had integrated herself more strongly into the role. Or perhaps she responded to live performance differently to the studio. Or maybe the troubled rehearsal period at Glyndebourne was reflected in the recording.

Be that as it may, Ferrier’s account is still profoundly beautiful and perfectly moving. True her distinctive vibrato can sometimes intrude and her Italian diction is not perfect. However the simplicity and beauty of Gluck’s melody lines suited her voice; she brought profundity and depth of feeling to music of apparent simplicity. Like the recent live account of Janet Baker’s Alceste from Covent Garden, Ferrier demonstrates that the right great artist can bring real passion to this music whilst recognising its classical purity and strength of line. In fact it is Ferrier’s beauty of line which I treasure most from this recording.

Ferrier is well supported by Ann Ayars as Amor and Zoe Vlachopoulos as Euridice, though neither quite reaches Ferrier’s heights. The orchestral playing is adequate and, as I have said, Stiedry’s conducting is admirable. The chorus are similarly adequate but in terms of period style compare well to the rather dire Covent Garden chorus on the Janet Baker Alceste.

This performance has already been issued by Dutton and their transfer was reviewed very favourably in the Gramophone in 1998. The Dutton performance lasts 63 minutes whereas on this disc Orfeo lasts 54 minutes, so I presume some material has been discreetly trimmed though the CD liner-notes do not say.

The transfers on this new disc would seem to be entirely admirable. If you have the Dutton disc then there is no reason to buy this one, except for the coupling.

Whereas Dutton issued Orfeo alone, Alto have coupled it with five excerpts from Gluck’s Alceste (the Italian version) taken from the complete performance made by Kirsten Flagstad under Geraint Jones in 1956. Flagstad and Jones collaborated on the Mermaid Theatre performances of Purcell’s Dido which they went on to record. Their complete recording of Gluck’s Alceste was made following this, in 1956, after Flagstad’s retirement from the stage. Flagstad had sung the role at the Met during the 1951-52 season, including her farewell performance.

Flagstad’s Wagner performances were notable for her flawless intonation as well as the purity and gleaming beauty of her tone. These are exactly the virtues which make her Gluck (and her Purcell) performances so fine. I can think of few other elderly Wagnerian sopranos - she was 61 at the time of recording Alceste - who I’d want to hear in these roles. That said, Flagstad is notably taxed at times by the role’s tessitura.

As someone who knows the French version of the opera better than the Italian one, it is fascinating to hear Divinités du Styx in its original version, with extremely similar orchestration but a radically different vocal line.

It would be nice to think that these little snippets from Alceste might encourage someone to re-issue the complete performance.

The booklet includes an informative article but no libretti.

If you don’t have Ferrier’s Glyndebourne performance as Orfeo, then buy this. Her recording is essential listening for everyone and this re-issue has the virtue of coupling it with tantalising excerpts from Flagstad’s Alceste.

Robert Hugill


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