Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice (Mixed version in Italian language – Vienna 1762 and Paris 1778) [103:43]
Ewa Podles (Orfeo); Ana Rodrigo (Euridice); Elena de la Merced (Amore)
Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid
Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia/Peter Maag
rec. live on 19th June 1998, La Coruña, Spain
ARTS 47753-8 SACD [34:29 (Act 1) + 69:14 (Acts 2 and 3)]

Orfeo ed Euridice - to a libretto by Raniero de’ Calzabigi - is without a doubt Gluck’s most famous work and arguably his masterpiece. Whether its fame and popularity is due to Gluck’s wonderful music or to his intended reform of Italian opera seria with the first version in 1762 is a matter of opinion. Then again, it may be because it contains the beautifully touching, celebrated aria “Che farò senza Euridice?”. It probably depends on one’s knowledge of opera or simply one’s personal taste.

Gluck wrote no less than three versions of Orfeo ed Euridice. The first, as mentioned above, came in 1762, to an Italian libretto, It was written for Vienna, with the part of Orfeo sung by the famous alto castrato, Gaetano Guadagni. Ten years earlier he had worked extensively with Handel in London. In 1769, Gluck conducted the work in Parma, Italy, as part of a triple-bill of his operas. There, he adapted the role of Orfeo for the soprano castrato, Giuseppe Millico, naturally with a much higher voice than Guadagni. Finally, in 1774, Gluck composed his third and last version; this time for Paris under the patronage of his former pupil Marie Antoinette. France was at the time the only European nation that did not accept the castrato voice and found it ridiculous. Therefore, to appeal more to French taste, Gluck composed a new version to an extended French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline (based on de’ Calzabigi’s Italian original). There the role of Orfeo was radically transposed for a haute-contre, which is really a high tenor voice though it has occasionally been mistakenly translated as a counter-tenor. Additionally and again to please Parisian audiences, Gluck changed the orchestration and wrote new numbers, namely the bravura aria at end of Act I and the ballets, in Act II and at the end of Act III. Much later, as the popularity of the castrato voice declined, women began to sing the role of Orfeo. In 1859, the French contralto Pauline Viardot (sister of the celebrated Maria Malibran) asked composer Hector Berlioz to adapt the opera for her vocal line. Berlioz created a so-called mixed version where he used Orfeo’s voice register from the original of 1762 but otherwise followed mostly the French score of 1774. The present recording of Orfeo ed Euridice is the mixed version and the role of Orfeo is sung by a woman contralto.

Polish contralto Ewa Podles sings the role of Orfeo in this version of Gluck’s opera, performed live and originally recorded in 1998. It is now re-issued in SACD format. Ms Podles undoubtedly possesses an exquisite, distinctive voice with a very wide range and great agility. Whether one finds it beautiful or not, is a matter of taste. I must say that although I like the contralto voice in general, Ms Podles’s is really not my cup of tea! Her performance is powerful and on stage, she must have made an impressive, commanding Orfeo but on disc there is something missing and I often found her interpretation over-dramatic. Her tone is very dense - for want of a better word - and to my mind lacks purity. The vowels are often closed in instances where they should be open and clear. Occasionally, it was difficult for me to tell whether she was singing in Italian or another language. Her vocal agility is patent in the bravura aria “Addio, addio, o miei sospiri”, however, I also felt that her voice was a little too stretched. Its highest register sounded forced and slightly artificial. She was at her best in the duets with Euridice where her voice harmonises pleasantly with the soprano of Ana Rodrigo. Her interaction with Elena de la Merced’s Amore is also very effective but to me Podles’s greatest moment is with the famous “Che farò senza Euridice?”. Here, she does a truly marvellous job, delivering a moving, delicate and very beautiful rendition of Orfeo’s loss.

Soprano Ana Rodrigo sang Euridice convincingly. Her voice possesses a nice timbre, which combined effectively with Podles’s full contralto; though occasionally, she lacked power. Ms Rodrigo delivered however a sensitive interpretation of the character, which often compensated for the moments where a little more power would have enhanced her singing. She has a solid technique that sustained her performance and gave us some very pleasant moments, as for example her rendition of “Che fiero momento” (Act III, Scene I), sung flawlessly.

Amore was sung by soprano Elena de la Merced, owner of a lovely crystal clear voice, with a pure tone. This contrasted beautifully with Podles’s rich contralto, particularly during their interaction in Act I, Scene II. I thoroughly enjoyed her rendition of “Gli sguardi trattieni” delivered with easy clarity and assured high notes.

The three women were at their best in Act III, the last of the opera, during the terzetto in Scene II where their voices harmonised beautifully, and then in Scene III, “Trionfi amore”, which forms the great finale. It was very well sung and their interaction with the chorus is excellent.

In Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck deliberately gave the chorus a great degree of importance so that they are like the fourth character in the opera, hence a powerful, expressive choir is essential. The Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid rose mostly to the challenge. They delivered some of the most memorable moments of the opera, particularly in the funereal opening of Act I “Ah se intorno a quest’urna” poignantly sung, and then in “Torna o bella al tuo consorte” at the end of Act II, a lovely, sweet rendition of the piece. Their diction could have been clearer, as it was not always obvious that Italian was the language used, however this turned out to be a minor issue and easily overlooked due to the quality of their singing. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia is not one of Spain’s best known orchestras but they do a convincing job and deliver Gluck’s beautiful score effectively, making it a very enjoyable event. Peter Maag’s direction is generally excellent; he gives the singers their space, never allowing the orchestra to overwhelm them. On the downside, I thought that it was not always well balanced. For example, the violins are too obvious during the overture, meaning that one almost has the impression that there were no other instruments. Nevertheless, this re-issue of a 1998 live recording of Gluck’s opera is a pleasant event and the SACD format does enhance the sound if one listens to it on the relevant equipment. If not, the echoes and other minor deficiencies are perhaps more noticeable. The libretto appears only in Italian and English while the booklet notes are in English, German, French and Italian, expertly written by Danilo Prefumo. They make enjoyable and informative reading but I disliked the font chosen; it is not only small but somehow jammed together, which does not go easy on the eyes and makes it difficult to read.

The CD heading on page 1 of the booklet places the Paris version in 1778; however, all the sources that I could find, including Danilo Prefumo - who wrote the CD booklet notes - give 1774 as the date for the Paris version.

Whether one should buy this version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice or another by better known artists will probably depend on personal taste. If you like the role of Orfeo sung by a woman then I would say that a recording featuring the great Janet Baker is probably the best you can get. Some scholars regard Gluck’s third and final version - for the voice of a high tenor, with a French libretto and entitled Orphée et Eurydice - as the definitive version; the one that Gluck really intended to create, mostly because it was the composer’s last. I must say that after having heard Juan Diego Flórez sing it, in the role of Orphée, at the Teatro Real in Madrid, I would definitely agree. However, if you believe that the role of Orfeo should really be sung by a contralto - the most similar register to that of the original version of 1762 - then this recording with Ewa Podles is a good option. The present disc in SACD format is superior to the simple CD (from the same label, with catalogue number 47536-2), however, considerably more expensive. So, if one does not have SACD equipment it is possibly better to go for the earlier, conventional CD recording.

Margarida Mota-Bull

see also reviews by Brian Wilson and Jim Zychowicz