Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice Opus Arte

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice 
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano) – Orfeo
Elisabeth Speiser (soprano) – Euridice
Elizabeth Gale (soprano) – Amor
Glyndebourne Festival Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Raymond Leppard
Peter Hall (producer)
rec. 1982, Glyndebourne, UK 
Opus Arte OA1372D DVD [124]

The Naxos-licensed programme of reissues of Glyndebourne productions from the 1970s and 1980s, of which I have already welcomed Sir Peter Hall’s stagings of Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has now expanded from the operas of Benjamin Britten to other composers such as this celebrated performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, given here in the once more-or-less standard version published by Ricordi in the nineteenth century and combining elements from both Gluck’s original Italian and revised French editions of the score. Modern scholarship has tended to focus more precisely on either one or the other of Gluck’s settings, or even the version prepared by Berlioz in the 1860s; but Leppard here makes choices between the various texts which may upset purists but which are eminently satisfactory from both the dramatic and musical point of view.

The settings, including some marvellously atmospheric designs by John Bury, do much to enhance the atmosphere of the performance without over-elaborating the basically simple construction of the music or adding any modern glosses or interpretations to the drama. The dancers, who as usual in Gluck have much to contribute to the proceedings, are not simply content to adopt classical poses but indulge enthusiastically in some gyrations which make quite an effect in the Dance of the Furies; but elsewhere they are more restrained when they contribute to the Elysian Fields or the closing scenes (given here at full length) which were added for Gluck’s French version of the opera. 

The singing cast is headed by Dame Janet Baker as Orfeo, a landmark performance which it would be hard to imagine ever being bettered by any mezzo-soprano in history. Authenticists may of course object that the role was originally written by Gluck for a castrato and then revised for a French tenor; but the tradition of casting the role with a deep female voice goes back at least to Berlioz (himself a great admirer of Gluck) and distaff interpretations of the role from Kathleen Ferrier onwards will always command affection and admiration. Certainly no counter-tenor has ever managed to make the same impassioned emotional impact that Baker does here; it simply does not fall within the job description of the voice. The sheer effect of her performance is testified by the fact that the same performance as we see here was also issued on LP and later transferred to CD, where for many years it has continued to be one of the most highly recommended versions in the audio medium. Her heartfelt acting skills simply serve to reinforce one of the great interpretations of all time.

Elisabeth Speiser and Elizabeth Gale, in the only two other solo roles in the opera, cannot possibly be expected to match the superlative qualities of Dame Janet; but they by no means let the side down, and Hall’s direction ensures that their dramatic contributions are precisely and clearly observed. The recorded sound, in the rather dry and boxy acoustic of the old Glyndebourne opera house, lacks the ideal degree of resonance but the orchestral sound still has plenty of warmth and clarity. Care has been taken, too, to ensure that the footfall of the dancers does not interrupt the rhythms of the music.

In its last reissue the DVD box was reduced to the bare minimum of packaging, but this new release now restores the booklet – a feature which I welcomed also in the two Britten reissues already reviewed. Subtitles are restricted as before to European languages only, which is a pity. But anybody who has failed previously to catch up with Baker’s incomparable performance on video should now make haste to repair the omission. This is one of those DVDs that should never be allowed to go out of circulation. 

Now, at risk of appearing to nag (and I am grateful for what we have!), could I ask Naxos to excavate and reissue the other Peter Hall productions from Glyndebourne which made such a magnificent effect on television during the 1970s and 1980s, some of which have long been unobtainable? And, with particular emphasis on his work with Dame Janet, the performances of Monteverdi’s Ulisse and Cavalli’s Calisto – the latter particularly valuable as a rare example of the singer in a comic role? 

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Additional information
John Bury (set and lighting designer)
Stuart Hopps (movement)
Subtitles: German, English, French, German, Spanish
4.3: Dolby Digital
All regions