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.
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.
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.
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