Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice (Conflation of Vienna, 1762, and Paris, 1774, versions)
Ewa Podleś (mezzo) - Orfeo; Ana Rodrigo (soprano) - Euridice; Elena de la Merced (soprano) - Amore; Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid; Orquesta Sinfónia de Galicia/Peter Maag
rec. live, La Coruña, Spain, 19 June 1998. DSD.
Notes, text and translation included.
ARTS MUSIC BLUE LINE Hybrid SACD 47753-8 [34:24 + 69:11]
This recording was originally issued, in CD format only, on the Arts Music Red Line label, 47536-2, as reviewed by 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 SACDs.
The first thing that prospective purchasers need to know is which version of the opera is used. Gluck originally composed Orfeo ed Euridice 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 in 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 Forsling, Christopher Howell and Robert Hugill). 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 - pace CH, 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 scores.
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 of 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 (Arts 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 (CD1, tr.16) sublime.
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 2009 Download Roundup. It makes a fascinating comparison with the Gluck and it comes at mid-price.