2014 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Christoph Willibald Gluck, and in recognition of this Arthaus Musik has issued this 3-DVD collection of live performances of three of his operas. Each of these performances has previously been issued separately, and each features distinguished musicians in major houses.
The earliest of the three was Orfeo (Vienna 1762), which Gluck rewrote for Paris fourteen years later. Described as an azione teatrale per musica, it was a milestone in the movement towards operatic reform, whose subject was surely a deliberate choice in its aptness. The librettist was Raniero de Calzabigi (1714-1795), a poet who was ‘a great lover of women’, according to none other than Giacomo Casanova. In some respects, however, Orfeo ed Euridice was a cautious beginning. The overture is fairly conventional, less ambitious than the later example for Alceste, while the main role was written for a mezzo-soprano castrato, though Gaetano Guadagni was an exceptional singer who had studied acting with David Garrick.
Nowadays the role of Orfeo is often taken by a woman, in which context Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker were famous examples. More often than not, however, it is a male alto who sings this part, as here with the excellent Jochen Kowalski. Musically his part is much the most important, even if he is ably joined by his Euridice and Amor, Gillian Webster and Jeremy Budd. The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra provide sensitive and well-judged support.
However, in the context of a DVD performance this excellent musical interpretation has to be tempered by the visual side of the production. This was the conception of the eminent director Harry Kupfer and it won an Olivier Award. That said, this reviewer must take the view that the jury must have made a misjudgement. Orfeo is cast as a pop singer wearing trendy late 20th century jeans and leather jacket, while on the stage his harp, if thankfully not the instrument in the pit, is replaced by guitars, both acoustic and electric. This conceit is either too clever by half or just plain nonsense. If the musicians perform the notes as written and in a style sympathetic with that of the 18th century, why can’t this sensitivity be attempted on stage too?
On DVD the Zürich performance of Iphigénie en Tauride comes across rather better. The opening scene is quite wonderful musically and was a major influence on the young Berlioz, for example. No wonder this is often described as Gluck’s greatest opera.
The staging takes risks but is generally effective. The major characters, Iphigénie and Orestes, are also represented by large doubles akin to puppets, who mime the feelings of the two. In the first act, for instance, the storm in the elements also represents the storm in the mind of Iphigénie herself. Like all the great opera composers, Gluck was a man of the theatre, and his priorities were always linked with the enhancement of sensitivity to the plot and the characters, and to a closer relationship between the music and the drama. This heroic opera concerning the victory of Enlightenment over barbarism enjoys fine performances from Juliette Galstian as Iphigenie, Rodney Gilfry as Oreste, Deon van der Walt as Pylade, and Anton Sharinger as Thoas.
The live recording from Stuttgart is conducted by Constantinus Carydis and features the Paris version of Alceste of 1776, rather than the original Vienna version from nine years previously. The story-line derives from a play by Euripides, about an heroic wife who offers her own life to spare that of her husband. There is an important role for the chorus, for whom there is some magnificent music, and a crucial walk-on part for Hercules, who arrives to save the day at the end.
The setting is updated to allow contemporary dress, and this seems at odds with the atmosphere generated by the music. Again there is the question of whether this serves the opera appropriately for DVD purposes, though the musical performance is highly creditable.
Overall, therefore, this three-DVD collection is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing anniversary tribute. The performances do not for the most part match the vision and psychological ambit that this great opera composer and his various collaborators achieved.
Iphigénie en Tauride: Göran Forsling
Alceste: Robert McKechnie
Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna, 1762) [83:00]
Jochen Kowalski - Orfeo
Gillian Webster - Euridice
Jeremy Budd - Amor
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden/Hartmut Haenchen
Harry Kupfer: stage director
Hans Hulscher: video director
rec. 1991, Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Previously released as Arthaus 100417
Alceste (Paris version, 1776) [165:00]
Catherine Naglestad - Alceste
Donald Kaasch - Admète
Johan Rydh - High Priest
Bernhard Schneider - Évandre
Michael Ebbecke - Hercules
Chorus and Orchestra of the Staatsoper Stuttgart/Constantinos Carydis
Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito: stage directors
Nele Münchmeyer: video director
rec. 2006, Staatsoper Stuttgart
Previously released as Arthaus 101251
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Iphigénie en Tauride (Paris, 1779) [108:00]
Juliette Galstian - Iphigénie
Rodney Gilfry - Oreste
Deon van der Walt - Pylade
Anton Scharinger - Thoas
Chorus and Orchestra ‘La Scintilla’ of the Opernhaus Zürich/William Christie
Claus Guth: stage director
Thomas Grimm: video director
rec. 2001, Opernhaus Zürich
Previously released as Arthaus 100377