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Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice: which recording should you buy?
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Become a Redditor and join one of thousands of communities. Mannlich relates in his memoirs, written in French and published in , that Gluck told him about his early life at a luncheon in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, in He quotes Gluck as saying:. My father was forestmaster at M In my homeland everyone is musical; music is taught in the schools, and in the tiniest villages the peasants sing and play different instruments during High Mass in their churches.
As I was passionate about the art, I made rapid progress. I played several instruments and the schoolmaster, singling me out from the other pupils, gave me lessons at his house when he was off duty. I no longer thought and dreamt of anything but music; the art of forestry was neglected. A childhood flight from home to Vienna is included in several contemporary accounts of Gluck's life, including Mannlich's, but some scholars have cast doubt on Gluck's picturesque tales of earning food and shelter by his singing as he travelled.
Most now claim that the object of Gluck's travels was not Vienna but Prague, where according to early biographies he began studying logic and mathematics in At the time the University of Prague boasted a flourishing musical scene that included performances of both Italian opera and oratorio. Gluck eventually left Prague without taking a degree, and vanishes from the historical record until According to the music historian Daniel Heartz, there has been considerable controversy concerning Gluck's native language.
In Gluck arrived in Milan, where he studied under G. Sammartini , who, according to Carpani, taught Gluck "practical knowledge of all the instruments. Sammartini was not, primarily, a composer of opera, his main output being of sacred music and symphonies, but Milan boasted a vibrant opera scene, and Gluck soon formed an association with one of the city's up-and-coming opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera, Artaserse , was performed on 26 December Set to a libretto by Metastasio, the opera opened the Milanese Carnival of According to one anecdote, the public would not accept Gluck's style until he inserted an aria in the lighter Milanese manner for contrast.
Nevertheless, Gluck composed an opera for each of the next four Carnivals at Milan, with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini appearing in many of the performances, so the reaction to Artaserse is unlikely to have been completely unfavourable. He also wrote operas for other cities of Northern Italy in between Carnival seasons, including Turin and Venice, where his Ipermestra was given during November at the Teatro San Giovanni Crisostomo.
Nearly all of his operas in this period were, like Artaserse , set to Metastasio's texts, despite the poet's dislike for his style of composition. The timing was poor, as the Jacobite Rebellion had caused much panic in London, and for most of the year the King's Theatre was closed.
Gluck's two London operas, La caduta de' giganti and Artamene eventually performed in , borrowed much from his earlier works, a method that was to re-occur throughout his career. Six trio sonatas were the other immediate fruits of his time in London. A more long-term benefit was exposure to the music of Handel — whom he later credited as a great influence on his style — and the naturalistic acting style of David Garrick.
Either Gluck or Lobkowitz bought a copy of Handel's Messiah. This statement is very likely true, but misunderstood. Gustavus Waltz was an excellent singer who performed in many of Handel's works and he was an excellent contrapuntist. The years and brought Gluck two highly prestigious engagements. First came a commission to produce an opera for Dresden, performed by Pietro Mingotti's troupe, to celebrate a royal double wedding that would unite the ruling families of Bavaria and Saxony. Le nozze d'Ercole e d'Ebe , a festa teatrale , borrowed heavily from earlier works, and even from Gluck's teacher Sammartini.
The success of this work brought Gluck to the attention of the Viennese court, and, ahead of such a figure as Johann Adolph Hasse , he was selected to set Metastasio's La Semiramide riconosciuta to celebrate Maria Theresa's birthday. Vittoria Tesi took the title role. On this occasion Gluck's music was completely original, but the displeasure of the court poet, Metastasio, who called the opera " archvandalian music," probably explains why Gluck did not remain long in Vienna despite the work's enormous popular success it was performed 27 times to great acclaim.
For the remainder of and Gluck travelled with Mingotti's troupe, contracting a venereal disease from the prima donna and composing the opera La contesa de' numi for the court at Copenhagen. In he abandoned Mingotti's group for another company established by a former member of the Mingotti troupe, Giovanni Battista Locatelli.
The main effect of this was that Gluck returned to Prague on a more consistent basis. Gluck, though, was one of those revolutionaries capable of betraying his own ideals. In the opening tableau, the chalumeau and the cornett, with their fragile, other-worldly timbres, were replaced by the oboe and the clarinet. The French, rational to the last, deemed castratos an offence against nature. By the midth century, though, it had slipped out of the repertoire, not least because the haute-contre voice was now almost obsolete. Enter that passionate Gluck champion Hector Berlioz.
The Gluck—Berlioz— Viardot combination caused a predictable sensation. Mezzo-Sopranos Reign In essence it was the Berlioz version, in French or back-translated into Italian and mingled with bits of the original, that held sway for more than a century. The title-role was still occasionally taken by a tenor, but with Viardot as imposing precedent, Orpheus became the province of mezzos and contraltos.
On a broadcast from the Met, ponderously conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, the title-role is taken by the Wagnerian mezzo Kerstin Thorborg: dignified, very feminine-sounding, not always ideally steady. This may have its attractions as a period piece, but the sound is poor-to-excruciating, with pitch distortions, a murkily distant chorus, constant stage clatter and an irritatingly intrusive prompt did anyone actually know their words? In England, with its enduring oratorio tradition, the part of Orpheus was long associated with the maternal contralto, a breed represented, supremely, by Kathleen Ferrier.
In the late s the Royal Opera House mounted a composite Orfeo part, part, part-Berlioz for Marilyn Horne, with her darkly brilliant timbre, huge range and spectacular coloratura technique. Yet, as ever, she sings with profound insight and understanding. While the Glyndebourne Chorus are splendid, neither the Eurydice the edgy Elisabeth Speiser nor the Cupid is memorable. Berlioz Revived After these mix-and-match versions, two recordings appeared in French, based more or less faithfully on the Berlioz edition. Both are good. Gardiner conducts with a powerful dramatic sweep, drawing supple playing from the Lyons Opera Orchestra and bringing a sharp feeling for gesture to the ballet numbers.
While von Otter exhibits a Classical restraint, Jennifer Larmore, in the recording conducted by Donald Runnicles, is ardent and forthright — closer, one imagines, to how Viardot would have sounded. Runnicles gives the music a faint Romantic gloss, reasonable enough since this is Gluck viewed through a Berlioz prism. The one serious drawback is the recessed recording of what sounds like a vast chorus.
Back to Astonishingly, the original Italian Orfeo was only published in As in German performances of Handel opera in the s and beyond, the alto lead is transposed down an octave. The baritone hero is the omnivorous Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at his most knowing and imposing. The infernal spirits never stand a chance here. Gundula Janowitz is the most limpid of Eurydices, Richter the most Teutonically marmoreal of conductors. Although it in no way corresponds to the castrato in range or power, the countertenor voice, with its disembodied, other-worldly timbre, is apt for the symbolic nature of the hero, son of Apollo and god of song.
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