Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
Écho et Narcisse (1779)
Écho, Adriana González (soprano)
Narcisse, Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
Amour, Myriam Leblanc (soprano)
Cynire, Sahy Ratia (tenor)
Églé, Cécile Achille ( soprano)
Aglaé, Adèle Carlier (soprano)
Thanais, Laura Jarrell (soprano)
Sylphie, Lucie Edel (mezzo-soprano)
Le Concert Spirituel/Hervé Niquet
rec. 2022, l’Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles
French libretto with English and German translations enclosed
Reviewed as download from press preview
Château de Versailles CVS095 [2 CDs: 102]
Écho et Narcisse was Gluck’s sixth and last opera for Paris, and it was a failure. It premiered on 24 September 1779 and was discontinued after twelve performances; Gluck left Paris for Vienna and never returned. He revised it twice, but it never gained a foothold in the repertoire. René Jacobs revived it in 1987 at the Schwetzingen Festival, but it is still a rarity. The principal reason for the failure was the choice of subject. Écho et Narcisse is a pastoral, and that genre was out of fashion in the French capital at the time. The libretto is by Louis Théodore Baron de Tschudi, after Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Briefly the story goes like this: Narcisse and the nymph Écho are in love, but Apollo also loves Écho, and he puts a spell on Narcisse, so he falls in love with his own reflection. Écho is saddened by his supposed infidelity and dies. Too late, Narcisse’s spell is broken and he laments his loss, but soon hears the voice of his beloved echoing his lamentation. He decides to join the young woman in death and so they are re-united.
The plot isn’t too exciting for a present-day audience either, but Gluck’s music is another matter. He was in his mid-sixties but still at the height of his creative powers. Less than a half-year before Écho et Narcisse premiered, Iphigénie en Tauride, which many regard as his greatest work, was a great success in Paris and the inspiration flows just as abundantly from Gluck’s pen in Écho. The beauty of his melodies is just as enticing, even richer, and the dramatic expressivity on a level that makes one regret that he didn’t lavish it on a worthier libretto.
The short overture is both solemnly noble and rhythmically vital, and there is youthful freshness in the many orchestral preludes, interludes and postludes as well as the dances. The ballet sequence in Act I (CD 1 tracks 15-17) is a highlight with a superb Air pour les Nymphes et les Sylvains (track 15), where the solo flautist Jean Bregnac triumphs in his virtuoso solo part. The jubilant choral finale Hymne de l’Amour followed by a soft Romance and a thunderous Allegro is another highlight (CD 2 tracks 19-21). The flexible recitatives that more or less seamlessly pass into arias are also masterly. There are many memorable scenes in this score, the most touching being the whole of the second act (CD 2 tracks 1-10) when Écho dies and when Narcisse’s lamentations are repeated by the voice of Écho in Act III. Many other solos and dialogues are worth returning to for the beauty and the dramatic power of the music, but also – and this is important – for the marvellous singing. There is not a weak voice within earshot. From Myriam Leblanc’s bright, crystal clear Amour, who has the Prologue all to herself, all through the cast list, there is not a wobble, not a sour note, not one shaky or vibrato laden tone, only well-modulated, clean, expressive singing to savour; you may lean back, confident that the music will speak to you without disturbances. Several of my colleagues and I have recently been frequently complaining about the low standard of singing, but I have noted that singers specialising in baroque and classicism often stand out as better-schooled – or rather, that their repertoire is more merciful towards the voices. Listen here to Cécile Achille in Églé’s aria Écho par un charme innocent in act I (CD 1 track 18) or Adriana González in Écho’s solo Peut-être d’un injuste effroi (CD 1 track 26). Cyrille Dubois is at his best in the dramatic Ô combats, ô désordre extreme (CD 2 track 9). A recital disc with him is in the pipeline, and I very much look forward to reviewing it. The rest of the cast are also well up to this high standard, and every lover of good singing and good 18th century opera should lend an ear to this issue. I haven’t heard René Jacobs’ recording from 1987, and it doesn’t seem to be available at the moment, but the present recording is superb in every respect, and nobody is likely to be disappointed by either the singing or the music.
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