This recording was originally issued, in CD format only, on the
Arts Music Red Line label, 47536-2, as reviewed
Robert J Farr. It remains available with that catalogue number,
in which form it is less expensive than the SACD reissue for
those requiring only the CD tracks. That said, the latter may
prefer to future-proof themselves by spending a little more on
The first thing that prospective purchasers need to know is which
version of the opera is used. Gluck originally composed Orfeo
to an Italian libretto and with a castrato Orfeo
in Vienna in 1762. This version was slightly amended in 1769
for a performance in Parma with a lighter-voiced castrato. When
the work was presented as Orphée et Eurydice
Paris in 1778, with a French text and a high tenor (haut-contre
Orphée, several pieces of ballet music were added to appeal
to the French taste. There is a third, 1859, version, courtesy
of Berlioz, a great admirer of Gluck. The later composer effectively
combined his predecessor’s 1762 version with the 1778 ballet
music, thereby clearing away several corruptions which had crept
into performances, but adapting the role of Orpheus for the French
alto Pauline Viardot.
The Berlioz conflation, or something similar, held the stage
and the recording studio until comparatively recently, and that
is effectively what is presented on the current recording, combining
the Italian opera with the added ballet pieces. I have to admit
that I still find this arrangement the most musically satisfying.
Whatever the merits of the Vienna original, I’m very loath
to lose the Dance of the Blessed Spirits
As it happens, I’ve just been comparing the various available
versions of this and Monteverdi’s and Offenbach’s
Orpheus operas for my February, 2010, Download Roundup, so I’ll
summarise my findings here before moving to the new reissue.
On Decca’s mid-price Opera Collection, John Eliot Gardiner
goes for the original Vienna option. Though one misses some of
the ballet music composed for Paris, the logic of his choice
is inescapable. With an excellent cast, including Derek Lee Ragin
as Orpheus, Sylvia Macnair as Euridice, and his trusty English
Baroque Soloists, this just pips at the post the rival 1762 version,
on Naxos. Even so, the latter, on just one CD, is by no means
to be dismissed (Östman, Naxos 8.660064). With the parent
CDs apparently deleted, downloading is currently the only way
to obtain this Gardiner/Decca recording; there’s a good
mp3 version from passionato (470
4242 2 CDs).
If you’re looking for the 1774 Paris version, with the
well-known ballet music but not the final pantomime, you probably
won’t do better than the Naxos recording, directed by Ryan
Brown (8.660185-6 - see reviews by Göran
). I have just one grumble: I wish that the otherwise
excellent Orphée, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, had put
a little more emotion into J’ai perdu mon Eurydice
I really don’t want Kathleen Ferrier, but I would like
a little more affective singing - and I do greatly prefer Italian
to French as a language for singing.
Another version well worth considering comes in the form of Sigiswald
Kuijken’s 1982 recording of the Vienna original plus the
ballets, with René Jacobs as Orfeo and Marjanne Kweksilber
as Euridice (Accent ACC30023, 2 CDs). I enjoyed this; it’s
beautifully sung, but the employment of a great deal of ornamentation
and mostly slow - often very slow - tempi may put off some listeners.
All the above are so inexpensive that you may well wish to combine
two or more of them - one of the Vienna versions for its dramatic
simplicity, the Naxos recording of the Paris version for the Dance
of the Blessed Spirits
and the other well-known ballet pieces,
or the Jacobs/Kuijken for the best of both worlds musically.
Or you could do a great deal worse than to compromise between
the two versions by purchasing Peter Maag on CD or this SACD
reissue. Of the versions listed above, this comes into direct
competition only with the Jacobs/Kuijken, with a mezzo rather
than a counter-tenor Orpheus, but there are other worthwhile
recordings which, in one way or another, conflate the different
A prominent place in these conflated versions must be given to
Janet Baker’s recording with Raymond Leppard (Warner 2292
45864 2, mid-price). As Robert Hugill notes in his review
the excerpts from this recording on Warner’s budget Apex
label (2564 61497-2), Baker was coming to the close of her career,
but there are still many more positive than negative points.
The whole performance is very well worth considering, with Leppard’s
direction another very valuable plus.
How does Ewa Podleś on the Arts recording compare with the
divine Janet Baker? She has a powerful voice and she uses it
to good effect here, but it is not a voice to which I warm in
the Orpheus role. I agree with the epithets which Robert Farr
applies to her singing, especially when he describes it as wide-ranging
and varied in expression. There are, however, two near-fatal
problems for me: I hear very few of the words which she sings
and I find the voice, which others have described as fruity,
rather too plummy. This is a problem which too often afflicts
mezzos and contraltos; for me it spoils an otherwise very likeable
performance, formerly available on the Vanguard label, with Maureen
Forrester in the title role and Sir Charles Mackerras at the
helm. I owned and lived with that version on LP and I bought
it on CD; by then, however, I’d become acquainted with
so many alternatives that I could no longer make allowances.
I’m not yet sure about long-term repetition of Ewa Podleś in
the part, but I have sufficiently strong doubts to advise you
to try to hear her before purchasing. I offer a word of caution,
however: listening to a low-quality sample from a website makes
the voice sound less plummy. I tried a 128kbps sample of track
8, Chiamo il mio ben così
, and wondered
if I had been unfair, until I listened to the CD again. Hearing
the surround channels would probably make the problem even more
apparent - I was able to listen only in stereo. RF used that
same track as an example of Podleś’ wide range and
elegance of expression, which serves to show how two people can
listen to the same thing and emphasise different aspects of what
they hear. I hear the virtues to which RF refers, but find the
plummy tone too off-putting to applaud.
Perhaps, too, I’ve now heard too many counter-tenor performances
in this opera to appreciate the wide vibrato which Podleś employs.
The reverse of the coin is that her voice has much more power,
especially at the bottom of its range, than a counter-tenor.
I have to admit to admiring her wonderful rendition of the show
aria at the end of Act 1, tacked on from the version which was
performed at Parma in 1769. Herein, however, lies another problem:
this aria, drawn from the serenade Il Parnasso Confuso
represents Gluck’s concession to Italian taste but abrogates
some the principles that underlay his reform operas and ‘seems
to fly in the face of [his] intent’, as even Arts Music’s
own notes admit (page 6).
That’s just about the sum total of my reservations. If
I’m inclined to rate Podleś in the title role less
highly than Baker, the reverse is, if anything, true of the overall
direction. Leppard rarely lets us down in baroque opera and he
doesn’t do so here, but I’m full of admiration for
Peter Maag’s direction - as much as I was in the case of
his vintage recording of Mozart’s Die Entführung
aus dem Serail
which I recently reviewed
Archive 43085-2). Firm but unobtrusive, with tempi that seem
instinctively right, never too slow to let the pace lag or so
fast as to seem driven, this is the art that conceals art.
When Amore cuts into Orfeo’s lamentations in Scene ii (CD1,
track 13) the contrast between Podleś’ very full-toned
singing and Elena de la Merced’s pure-toned lyrical voice
is very marked - much more so than it is between Derek Lee Ragin’s
counter-tenor and Cyndia Sieden on the Decca/Gardiner recording.
I thought de la Merced’s singing of Gli sguardi trattieni
Ana Rodrigo is also very effective in the role of Euridice, if
a little lacking in power by comparison with Podleś. If
you are trying the set before purchase, listen to her in Questo
asilo di placide
(CD2, tr.13). That track will also give
you a good idea of the competence of the chorus; neither they
nor the orchestra are well known, but both are very effective.
The recording is good; though it was made live, one is made aware
of the audience only when they applaud at the end.
The presentation is good, too, with full Italian text and English
translation. The notes are informative and idiomatically translated,
but they are printed in a minuscule font with cramped spacing
which I found hard on the eyes.
In considering rival versions, I haven’t taken into account
the abridged Kathleen Ferrier version; it’s either beyond
criticism or not worth considering, depending on your attitude
to Ferrier. I’m not a great fan of her voice, but those
who wish to read about its reissue on the budget Alto label are
referred to Robert Hugill’s review
If you’re looking for the original Vienna versions, then,
it’s either Gardiner as a download or Östman on Naxos.
For the Paris version, go for Brown on Naxos. Fans of Janet Baker
- I’m certainly one of them - will regard her Erato recording
with Leppard as a must. Even if you have another complete version,
back it up with the inexpensive Apex excerpts CD. Otherwise,
those seeking a mixed version with a counter-tenor Orpheus should
be happy with the Jacobs/Kuijken on Accent. If you must have
SACD and are happy with a mezzo Orpheus, the new Arts reissue
will be your choice - but make sure that you can take Ewa Podleś in
the title role.
Finally, I must draw to your attention to another Arts recording
of an Orfeo opera, that which Bertoni composed to the same text
as Gluck (Red Line 47118-2). I recommended the recording of this
opera by the Solisti Veneti and Claudio Scimone in my September
. It makes a fascinating comparison with the Gluck
and it comes at mid-price.
see also review of CD version (477532) by Robert