Monday, 28 December 2020

Berlioz and the creation of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice as a 19th century masterpiece

Kathleen Ferrier as Gluck's Orfeo in the Netherlands in 1949
Kathleen Ferrier as Gluck's Orfeo in the Netherlands in 1949

Whilst the versions of Gluck's operatic re-telling of the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice with a male counter-tenor or tenor as the hero have been explored quite extensively in the last 25 years, the abiding image of the opera remains, at least in English speaking countries, that of a female mezzo-soprano as Orpheus thanks to the powerful performances of singers such as Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. In fact, this standard version of the opera is one that Gluck never knew, and both the opera and the idea of the mezzo-soprano as hero are very much 19th-century creations, the result of a combination of circumstances in 1820s Paris, a story which includes pitch inflation, the composer Berlioz' hero-worship of an unfashionable composer, and a great operatic dynasty, as well as a walk-on role for the painter Eugene Delacroix.

Adolphe Nourrit in the title role of Tarare by Antonio Salieri
Adolphe Nourrit in the title role
of Tarare by Antonio Salieri
In 1824, the young tenor Adolphe Nourrit (1802-1839) was due to sing the role of Orphée in Gluck's opera Orphée et Eurydice, which was created for the Paris Opera in 1774 with a high-tenor in the role of Orphée. Nourrit had made his operatic debut in 1821 as Pylade in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride (written for the Paris Opera in 1779), and his father was principal tenor at the opera (a position Adolphe would take over in 1826). Adolphe Nourrit would go on to create the principal tenor roles in all of Rossini's French operas from Néocles in Le siège de Corinthe (1826) to Arnold in William Tell (1829), he also performed in Daniel Auber's La muette de Portici (1828), Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (1831), Fromenthal Halévy's La Juive (1835), and Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots (1836). Nourrit's technique was distinctively French, using a lot of head voice so that he could extend his upper range to high D (high E in private) using falsetto. But this was the period when Italian tenors were using a more open-throated style, using so-called chest voice and Nourrit's rival, Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896) would become master of the high C sung in chest voice, the style of singing that we accept today.

Nourrit's technique linked back to the original French haut-contre, a high tenor role which developed in the 17th century as the French operatic establishment sought to replace the use of castratos as male heroes in opera, because the sound of the voice was disliked, or the operation was viewed as barbaric or simply anti-Italian prejudice. Whilst French 17th and early 18th century operas by Rameau and Lully were no longer in the early 19th century Paris Opera's repertoire, those of Gluck were. And so it was quite obvious that a leading young tenor should sing the role of Orphée. The problem was that the role was too high for Nourrit and transpositions had to be made.

This wasn't Nourrit's fault. Roles written for the haut-contre sit high in the tenor register with occasional excursions to the top of the range. Unfortunately for Nourrit, the pitch level in Paris had been rising. Pitch had been a constant battlefield between singers and instrumentalists, with rising pitch often coming about because of the desire for a brighter tone. In Germany, for much of the 18th century, there were two standards, one for voices and organ and the other for chamber music. In Paris, we can map the rise in pitch thanks to the survival of a series of tuning forks so that in the Paris Opera an 1810 tuning fork gives A = 423 Hz, an 1822 fork gives A = 432 Hz, and an 1855 fork gives A = 449 Hz (which is a rise of about a semi-tone from 1810 to 1855). These sort of rises make a big difference in roles like Orphée, designed to sit at the top of the tenor's range. But it would be only in 1859 that the French government set a standard pitch.

Gluck created multiple versions of his telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, not so much to improve the work as to respond to circumstances. The composer never created his ideal version, and to a practical 18th-century composer like Gluck, the concept of an ideal version would be foreign. He had written the opera originally as Orfeo ed Euridice for the Viennese Court, where Gluck was employed. The opera was his second collaboration with the librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi (1714-1795), an Italian poet who had produced an edition of the works of Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), the most important writer of 18th century opera seria libretti. First, they worked on the ballet Don Juan (1761), then Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), Alceste (1767) and finally Paride ed Elena (1770). In these works, de' Calzabigi was working towards a simplification of the Baroque opera style, these became the so-called Reform Operas. De' Calzabigi seems to have been the prime mover in this, Gluck would write Reform Operas but also unreformed ones. 

There are in fact, three versions of Gluck's Orpheus. He wrote Orfeo ed Euridice for Vienna in 1762 with an alto castrato in the title role. Then he produced a more compact version of the opera, with plainer orchestration for a triple bill performed in Parma in 1769 with Orpheus transposed up for soprano castrato. This version is relatively unknown but was performed in 2019 by Ian Page and Classical Opera [see my review]. Then Gluck radically reworked the opera, to a new French libretto, for the Paris Opera with a high tenor as Orpheus, sung at the premiere by Joseph Legros.

Gluck and De' Calzabigi's Paride ed Elena premiered in Vienna in 1770, but that year Gluck signed a contract to supply six works to the Paris Opera.

Joseph Legros
Joseph Legros, who created Orpheus
in Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice in 1774
He began with Iphigénie en Aulide, an entirely new work which caused significant controversy, and when Orphée et Eurydice premiered at the Paris Opera in 1774, the opera was closer to the classic tragedie lyrique as codified by Lully and Rameau. French and Italian opera different significantly in their style of construction, and one of the aspects of Gluck's Viennese Reform Operas had been the inclusion of more French elements such as the active participation of the chorus. In Italian opera, dance was incorporated either with a divertissement at the end of the opera or with a separate ballet. In Paris, each act of the opera had to include dance as part of the drama. Gluck's Viennese version of the opera had included a ballet divertissement at the end, but for Paris, he raided his back catalogue and took music from Don Juan to create the dance of the furies and wrote some entirely new music for a ballet in the Elysian fields. This includes the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, which remains one of the work's best-known numbers. What he did not do is vastly expand the sung roles, the changes here were mainly to vocal range and matters of detail.

In Vienna, Orfeo had been sung by an alto castrato, but this voice type was little used in France and by the 1820s, when Adolphe Nourrit took over the role, the castrato had effectively disappeared from the operatic stage. In Paris, Gluck had transposed the title role down to suit a high tenor, a haut contre. Which leads us to Adolphe Nourrit and his tessitura problems in 1824.

1824 would be the opera's last outing at the Paris Opera, but if we skip a few years, the issue with Orphée et Eurydice led the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer to suggest to the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) that she should sing Orphée. Meyerbeer was German-born, Italian-trained and had taken French opera by storm with a series of works which effectively created a new type of opera, out went Gluckian tragedie lyrique and in came French Grand Opera. 

The idea of a woman singing a male role was not such a strange idea as it might seem. During the Baroque period, women and male castratos were interchangeable in roles, it was the relative pitch which mattered rather than gender. In early 19th century Italy, with the decline of the castrato, the idea of women in male roles continued with the musico, generally a mezzo-soprano who sang the male hero. This was something with which Meyerbeer had direct experience. His final Italian opera Il crociato in Egitto (1824) featured a castrato as the hero, the last time such a voice type appeared on the opera stage. When this opera was performed, in Italian, at the Theatre Italien in Paris in 1825 the role was taken by a female mezzo-soprano, and women continued to be used to portray young men in operas so that Meyerbeer's 1836 opera Les Huguenots features a soprano as Urbain, the queen's page.

Pauline Viardot came from a distinguished operatic dynasty. Her father, the tenor Manuel Garcia, had taken the principal tenor roles in the premieres of Rossini's Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra and The Barber of Seville, and he would be very much associated with the title role in Rossini's Otello. Manuel's son (also Manuel) would be an indifferent singer but became a distinguished pedagogue and invented the laryngoscope. Pauline's elder sister was the star mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, whose death in 1836 propelled Pauline to the stage. It might also be added, in a story full of links and coincidences, that Pauline's father Manuel Garcia had been the teacher of Adolphe Nourrit.

From the 1840s, Pauline Viardot developed a significant career as a singing actress in Paris. She would create the role of Fides in Meyerbeer's opera Le Prophete in 1849, and Gounod wrote the title role in Sapho for her in 1851. She was Hector Berlioz' initial choice for the role of Didon in his opera Les Troyens. In 1860s Paris, the music of Gluck was somewhat out of fashion; the operas of Meyerbeer were a synthesis of German, French and Italian elements without the sense of Gluck's classicism. But the composer Berlioz highly rated Gluck, and Berlioz would trace his lineage back to Gaspare Spontini (1774-1851), who had written neo-classical operas for Paris in the 1810s through him to Gluck.

Pauline Viardot as Orpheus
Pauline Viardot as Orpheus
During the 1820s, the repertoire at the Paris Opera had undergone a sea-change, gradually the operas of Gluck and other composers in his image or inspired by him such as Spontini, Antonio Sacchini and Antonio Salieri went out, and in came the new French Grand Opera of composers such as Auber, Rossini, and Halevy. The change was cultural as much as musical, the opera was seeking a place for itself in the new France where aristocracy was no longer as important, where operas based on kings and gods were less popular, and where the audience was changing so that the opera-goers were becoming the prosperous middle class. A small band of music lovers kept the flame of Gluckian opera alive, and notable amongst them was Berlioz. In 1821, newly arrived in Paris, the young man saw Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, which thrilled him. He was particularly inspired by Gluck's use of the orchestra to carry the drama along. A later performance of the same work at the opera convinced him that his vocation was to be a composer, and in 1824 he attended all six of the performances of Orphée et Eurydice at the Paris Opera.

So it was Berlioz who was tasked with adapting Gluck's opera for the Parisian stage with mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot. During the 1850s, Berlioz was working on Les Troyens, but with no immediate prospect of performance, and the influence of Spontini and Gluck can be felt strongly in this work. In 1858, he wrote to his sister:

I assure you, dear sister, that the music in Les Troyens is something noble and elevated; it is also compelling and truthful, and if I am not much mistaken there are a number of novelties which will arrest the ears of musicians throughout Europe and perhaps make their hair stand on end. It seems to me that were Gluck to come back to life, he would say of me on hearing the work: “Here in truth is my son.” Hardly modest, you will say. But at least I am modest enough to admit to be lacking in modesty.

His version of Orphée et Eurydice is a creative piece of musicology allied to his sense of what was great about Gluck's music. So though Berlioz used the French version as his basis, transposed into the keys of the Italian version, he also created a complex patchwork, in some passages reverting to Gluck's Viennese original when he thought it superior, and restoring elements of the Viennese orchestration which Berlioz felt to be more subtle. The result is, perhaps, to create a more sophisticated work than another might have done. (There is more about the process in Berlioz' book A travers chants). Interestingly, during the process, Berlioz was assisted by the composer Camille Saint-Saens, not a name normally associated with the music of Gluck. But as a young composer Saint-Saens' talent was spotted and encouraged both by Berlioz and by Pauline Viardot.

The Berlioz version was first presented at the Théâtre Lyrique on 18 November 1859 with Viardot as Orphée, Marie Sasse as Eurydice, Marie Ernestine Marimon as L'Amour, Mlle Moreau as L'Ombre, and Adolphe Deloffre as the conductor. The sets were designed by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry, and the choreography was by Lucien Petipa (brother of Marius Petipa who would revolutionise ballet in Russia). The seventeen-year-old Jules Massenet was the orchestra's timpanist; during the rehearsals, Berlioz complimented him on the accuracy of his tuning! The production was a popular and critical success, filling the house every night, and being given 138 times. The painter Eugene Delacroix (who was in Pauline Viardot's circle) advised on her costume and the setting for the scene in Hell. He was impressed enough to refer to it as 'chef d’oeuvre véritablement ressuscité par [Pauline Viardot]' and invited George Sand to hurry to Paris and attend.

Gluck Orphée et Eurydice: - Juan Diego Florez, Lucy Crowe - Royal Opera House (©2015 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper)
Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice - Juan Diego Florez & Lucy Crowe at the Royal Opera House in 2015
(©2015 ROH. Photograph by Bill Cooper)


Berlioz' wasn't the only edition of the opera that was created, but it remained one of the most popular and most influential. The sheer success of the original production put the opera back on the 19th-century map, and in 1889, the Italian publishing house of Ricordi issued an edition of the opera for contralto with the French text back-translated into Italian. The rest, as they say, his history.    

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