Sunday 27 December 2015

A marriage of French spectacle and Italian lyricism and poetry - A propos Gluck's Orpheus

Gluck's Orfeo from the 1764 score
Gluck's Orfeo from the 1764 score
When Gluck wrote Orfeo ed Euridice for the court in Vienna there is a sense that the marriage with the opera's librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi was an arranged one. Gluck had been patronised by Count Giacomo Durazzo, the director of court spectacle in Imperial Vienna and Durazzo was interested in the marrying Italian lyricism and poetry with French spectacle in opera (for which read scenes integrating dance and chorus). When Tuscan poet Ranieri de'Calzabigi appears in Vienna he might at first seem an unlikely partner for an operatic marriage as he wasn't an experienced librettist, but he had spent time in Paris and had edited a complete edition of Metastasio's libretti.

The first results of their collaboration was the ballet, Don Juan, a rare early attempt to tell a story completely in dance, complete with a denouement which was regarded as terrifying by the first audience. The choreographer was Gasparo Angiolini, who directed the ballet in Imperial Vienna and who would work on Orfeo ed Euridice with Gluck and Calzabigi.

Their next collaboration was Orfeo ed Euridice, and encouraged by Calzabigi and Angiolini, Gluck brought to the fore elements with which he had experimented in earlier operas. So dance is integrated into the opera and the chorus is too, becoming a character in its own right in scenes such as the one with the furies. And the arias are short and relatively unadorned.

Gaetano Guadagni - the first Orfeo
Gaetano Guadagni - the 1st Orfeo
The first Orfeo was the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who had spent time in London from 1748 to 1755. His arrival in London had been as part of a comedy troupe (the lowest of the low), but Handel had taken him under his wing and coached him, and there had been acting lessons from David Garrick. The result seems to have been a remarkable modern performer..

Calzabigi and Gluck followed Orfeo ed Euridice with two more operas, Alceste and Paris ed Elena before Gluck heard the siren call and moved to Paris. There had had signed a contract for six operas thanks to a former pupil, Queen Marie Antoinette (to whom he had given lessons in Hapsburg Vienna).

Some of the opera Gluck created for Paris were new, and some were re-writes of existing operas. Turning Orfeo ed Euridice into Orphee et Eurydice required remarkably little work such was the French influence in the original work. Few extra vocal items were needed and the bulk of the new wiring was for the orchestra, for the expansion of the ballets. The title role used a haut-contre, the flexible high tenor beloved of the French.

This voice may not have been as slim-line as we might think and the more heroic haut-contre voices would develop into the type of tenor such as Adolphe Nourrit who sang the role of Arnold in the premiere of Rossini's Guillaume Tell in 1829. Pitch had risen in Paris since Gluck's day and when Nourrit sang the role of Orphée, the music had to be adjusted. And of course Nourrit was superceded by Gilbert Duprez with his overdeveloped chest register and ability to sing a high C from the chest.

Pauline Viardot as Orphée in 1860
Pauline Viardot as Orphée in 1860
So when Berlioz came to revive Orphee et Eurydice in 1859 it was with a female contralto, Pauline Viardot. Berlioz's edition combined the music from Paris with the keys from Vienna to create a new synthesis. This seems to have left an indelible stain on our psyche and people, even those who are historically informed, still think of Orpheus as having an alto voice. Gluck's soprano version (written for Parma) never ever gets a look in and the haut contre version in French remains a rarity.

When the Early Music movement was rediscovering Lully and Rameau, and developing new haut-contre voices, Guck's hero never seems to have been approached, at least there were no ground breaking recordings in the way that there were for operas by Rameau and Lully. When I was in my 20's it was Gluck's Vienna version which was the Orpheus de nos jours, if you wanted a tenor you ended up going back to Leopold Simoneau. The situation is better now, but the French version still seems to require specially pleading.

Thank goodness the Royal Opera House presented such a stunning account of the opera (see my review). Perhaps the problem remains that we hear the haute-contre as unheroic and etoilated. Perhaps the problem is Berlioz and his brilliant re-casting of Orpheus for female alto. But I think it is Kathleen Ferrier who is to blame. No-one who has heard her Orpheus can imagine it sung any other way.

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