Saturday, 30 November 2019

To Hades and back with Gluck's Orfeo

If you take Gluck's original 1764 score for Vienna, his Orfeo ed Euridice is one of the shortest and superficially the simplest three-act masterpieces in the repertoire. A major part of the credit should go to librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi, who strips the myth of preliminary trimmings and all but three characters (though the Furies and the Blessed Spirits are major presences). After Handel's Agrippina, which took more time than I'd thought, I wondered if we might be stretching Orfeo at four two-hour Monday classes on my Opera in Depth Course at Pushkin House. Far from it. In the first I was finally able to dig out excerpts from Peri's Euridice (beginning of the Prologue pictured below), the oldest extant opera in the repertoire from the year 1600, and his collaborator Caccini's version premiered shortly afterwards, as well as what you might expect from Monteverdi and a sideways glance at Telemann's multilingual spectacle for Hamburg.

Once embarked on Gluck, it was vital to check the differences between 1764 and the Paris version of 1774 (frontispiece pictured below), which involved substantial additions, only one of which I'd use if I were staging the work - the piercingly beautiful-sad flute solo which became the centrepieces of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, about which Berlioz writes so eloquently in his Treatise on Instrumentation. I'd also, by the way, omit the pointlessly jolly Overture and stop the opera at the end of 'Che farò', reprising the opening chorus with Orfeo's three cries of 'Euridice'. No point in staging the 'lieto fine' or happy end and being ironic it, given that modern taste won't swallow it.

So we zoomed between John Eliot Gardiner's recording of the original version, incisive and buoyant in choral and orchestral terms in a way none of the other five recordings I've been using begins to match,

and the Paris version as recorded in 1956 with Leopold Simoneau in the title role recast for tenor (listening options are now between countertenor, mezzo, contralto, tenor and even baritone, though we didn't go as far as that). Neither includes the aria at the end of Act 1, 'Addio, miei sospiri', which was formerly believed to be a borrowing from a contemporary, but in fact turns out to be Gluck adapting himself, albit a pre-reform self with all the showpiece trimmings. I was thrilled to find it on a recording I'd thought of discarding, the one with Marilyn Horne and Solti conducting. Then I screened the end of Act 1 with Janet Baker in the Glyndebourne production, and that has it too.

Anyway, here's Horne somewhat later, transposing down a tone and not so agile with the coloratura, but it's good to see a master singer's way with poise and the Italian language (especially in the preceding recit).

The Furies and Elysium scenes, which need to run continuously - and without the Dance of the Furies, taken for Paris wholesale from Gluck's splendid Don Juan ballet, pointless in this context since Orfeo has calmed the tormented creatures - involve some looking forward, especially to Beethoven, who explicitly moulded the dialogue between soloist and gruff strings at the heart of his Fourth Piano Concerto on the first and the 'Scene by the Brook' in the Sixth Symphony on Orfeo's 'Che puro ciel', for me the tone-poem high point of the entire opera. Gluck's original orchestration, with birdsong flute, seems to be so much lovelier than his simplified revision, and Derek Lee Ragin is my favourite interpreter of this heavenly inspiration, so we ought to have the Gardiner recording with the English Baroque Soloists. For some reason, though, that's not embeddable from YouTube, so I'll settle for Anne Sofie von Otter with the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock.

When Ian Page of Classical Opera and The Mozartists came to talk to us for the third class, he agreed that the original sounds best, but that the revision - where the flute simply exchanges murmuring-brook triplets with the strings, which first appears in the Parma interim version he conducted recently at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - actually works more effectively, balance-wise, live. Ian, polymath extraordinaire, wowed everyone with his range and insights. Within minutes he was talking about how what he thinks of as the tempo giusto for 'Che faro', a faster one than usual, makes it more about passionate loss rather than gentle, consoling elegy, with appropriate adjustments to the reflections marked 'a little slower' (Gluck was very specific, in everything but metronome, about what he wanted here). We then heard Classical Opera's Wigmore recording of the aria with the lustrous Anna Stéphany, and when the following week I compared verses - Lena Belkina (Ian's splendid Orfeo at the QEH), Ferrier, Simoneau, Derek Lee Ragin, Iestyn Davies on the new recording with David Bates's La Nuova Musica - that still came out tops for me. Of course Baker at Glyndebourne is the very model of focused intensity; how she pulls that off at the late Raymond Leppard's incredibly slow speed is little short of miraculous.

Ian's intensive study of hundreds of operas from the mid-18th century informs so much of what he says, and it was surprising to learn that Gluck's first version premiered in Vienna the day before the child-prodigy Mozart visited. Mozart certainly knew and loved this work - viz the parallels between 'Che puro ciel' and Tamino's first use of the Magic Flute, where both heroes lament how the absence of their beloved renders the idyllic scene imperfect. We also discussed, inter alia, dramatic continuity - the Parma version was performed straight through, with no interval and only the shortest of pauses between acts - and supertitling (Ian does his own, to make certain of absolute tie-ins with what's being sung). Here we are as snapped on request by student Andrea Gawn - forgive the shine and the blue tinge, the latter's from the projector/screen, hard to avoid).

We were also, for some reason, talking about Haydn symphonies and how Ian wants to champion the best ones without nicknames. He talked about the musical palindrome in the Minuet and Trio of No. 47, and how mind-blowing it is to get players to render it backwards from the score (as Haydn intended) rather than having it written out. There's a wealth of strangeness and wonder still to explore in the musical world.

Expectations of Iestyn Davies's visit this week were dashed when it turned out that he'd got the day wrong for his return from tour. We'll hold him to coming to see us next term; but I do think we got infinite riches from Ian. In the meantime, went to the Royal Overseas League yesterday for the launch of our beloved Linda Esther Gray's new collaborative volume with tenor Ian Partridge, Thoughts Around Great Singing (there's also a website: Both spoke engagingly of their experiences and the collaboration. I'll report back when I've read the book.


David Damant said...

But even with the original version, would you not prefer the last few bars of the Paris version for che faro? Or would you argue that the"tailing off" if I may use that expression was more appropriate to ending the opera there, with no happy ending.

David said...

The extra three bars make little difference to me, though if pushed I slightly prefer them (though only if the artist is better). My argument is to stop either version of the opera there and go back to the opening chorus rather than have the stuff with Amor and the final chorus.

David Damant said...

I suppose that one could argue that the more positive ending in the Paris version is in a sense demanding, leading to the happy ending, whereas the original,being rather downbeat- the aria just ends with the same notes as earlier - is more tragic, supporting your preferred ending Certainly the tragic voicing of "Eurydice" over the chorus at the opening is heart rending. In the Cambridge production in the 1960s Amor was unfortunately dressed in what one review said was a " naughty nightie" which did not help matters

David said...

Sorry, there really isn't enough of a difference to support that argument.