Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), today a largely under-appreciated composer, was an important influence on Mozart, primarily because of his approach to writing operas. Happily, some of his works do get the attention they deserve, including his opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice), premiered in 1762, which is the subject of some recent recordings.
In the mid-18th century, the genre of opera had grown complex and turgid, with the likes of Nicola Porpora and Antonio Caldara composing highly wrought settings of libretti on historical subjects. The wordy and angstful poet Pietro Metastasio was everybody’s favorite.
Gluck had had enough of the bombast. Harking back to the first generation of opera 150 years before, he chose a mythological rather than historical theme for Orfeo, considered the earliest of his “reform” operas. In keeping with the spirit of reform and simplification, the plot is fairly straightforward, the emotions bare, and the melody lines sweet and plaintive. If you enjoy heartstring-plucking arias in Mozart such as “Dove sono” from The Marriage of Figaro, give some credit to Gluck.
Orfeo ed Euridice is the ancient Greek story of a musician of magical ability who travels to the underworld to retrieve his wife after she is fatally bitten by a snake. The earliest surviving opera, by Jacopo Peri from 1601, also tells this story, as does Monteverdi’s first opera, so it’s a meaningful choice by Gluck.
The luminescent voice of British countertenor Iestyn Davies graces the role of Orfeo in a new live recording on Pentatone. Sophie Bevan plays Euridice, and David Bates conducts early-music ensemble La Nuova Musica, which comfortably stretches beyond its usual Baroque element into the gallant world of the pre-classical.
Bates crafts elegant support for Gluck’s exquisite melody lines in arias such as “Che farò senza Euridice!” (“What Shall I Do Without Eurydice?”), from Act III. The purity and simplicity of Davies’ delivery can’t help but touch the soul of anyone who has suffered the loss of love:
As Euridice, Bevan acts exceptionally well with her voice, but often she exhibits a distracting tremolo-type vibrato that disrupts her otherwise floating vocal production. Here she sings “Senza addio” (Without Farewell). The ensemble is led by Bates through a range of phrasing styles, from rhythmically hesitant to fluid and lustrous.
One of the distinguishing features of Gluck’s operas, influenced by traditions he encountered in France, is the inclusion of dance movements throughout. (The Metropolitan Opera’s current production features choreography by no less than Mark Morris, a sign of how integral these dances are to the work overall.) Therefore, an orchestra’s ability to hold the dramatic tension without singers is essential, and La Nuova Musica is more than up for the challenge. Bates and his instrumentalists bask in the shimmer of Gluck’s jewel-like writing here:
Another recent recording of Orfeo from Warner Music has the mythical musician played by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with soprano Amanda Forsythe as his wife and Diego Fasolis leading I Barrochisti.
(A sign of these confusing times for marketing music: Most of the tracks from this album are also available on a strange streaming-only compilation called Christoph Willibald Gluck: Masterworks, which also includes tracks from the opera by seemingly random orchestras, including Stockholm Chamber Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, plus three tracks from Gluck’s Iphigenie in Aulide [Iphigenia in Aulis], directed by John Eliot Gardiner.)
Although Jaroussky’s sound tends to be less pure and more pinched than Davies’, his sense of drama is consistently mesmerizing. Here, once again, is “Che farò senza Euridice!” In his version, the pain of loss seems even deeper than in the previous recording, particularly in the weightlessness of the high-register notes. Fasolis’ sensitive hand with the orchestra contributes greatly to the emotional journey.
Perhaps the best thing about this recording is the musical chemistry between Jaroussky and Forsythe. Their voices suit each other perfectly, intertwining like immortal lovers, as you can hear in the duet “Viene, appaga il tuo consorte” (“Come, Do Your Spouse’s Bidding”), an elegantly furious marital spat:
Gluck’s writing for chorus (in Orfeo representing the spirits of the underworld) is some of the finest in music history. He didn’t go in for the complicated polyphony of Handel (or even Mozart in his stile antico mode) but favored more homorhythmic singing that works closely with the orchestra to grand dramatic effect. The accuracy and power of the chorus is one of the defining factors of any production of Orfeo. This short example shows that the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, well matched by I Barrochisti, has the necessary skills:
Now that the terms “early music” and “historically informed performance” commonly apply to music all the way into the 18th century, it’s fun to be reminded of how we once expected Gluck’s music to sound. Contrast the two recordings discussed above to this 1951 performance conducted by the great Wilhelm Furtwängler. For easy comparison, here’s the now-familiar Orfeo aria “Che farò senza Euridice!”
The first obvious difference is the size of the orchestra, in particular the number of violins, presumably the same group of La Scala pit musicians who would have played for Tosca or La Bohème. The overall instrumental sound is thicker and less detailed than the more recent performances. And then there’s the fact that Orfeo is sung by a woman, mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri. Back in 1951, countertenors were quite a rarity.
Barbieri’s luscious voice offers a level of vibrato that these days is considered acceptable only for Romantic-era works. And her phrasing feels grounded, for lack of a better term – almost macho in its cadence. It’s beautiful singing that seems much too heavy-handed for the ethereal melody, like everything else about this (admittedly groundbreaking) recording. We’ve come a long way.
It’s worth noting here that Gluck wrote both Italian and French versions of his opera. The latter, premiered in 1774 at Paris Opera, was called Orphée et Euridice. (Later, Berlioz rewrote the French version for a mezzo-soprano in the role of Orphée, but Gluck was the first to use the French libretto.) Gluck’s commitment to setting vocal music in several languages was another inspiration for Mozart, who risked his reputation by daring to take German-language opera seriously. So, if you love The Magic Flute, tip your hat to C.W. Gluck.