Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice
There have been a number of recordings of Orfeo ed Euridice issued lately, in one or other of its incarnations, among them a version under John Eliot Gardiner of a compromise nineteenth-century text (a compromise, that is, between the Italian original of 1762 and the 1774 Orphee et Eurydice) and a very fine recording of the original version under Frieder Bernius with Michael Chance in the title-role. That version, my recommendation at least until now, has more the aura of an 'early music' performance than does the present one, with quicker tempos, a more detached string playing style and a cooler, purer Orpheus at the centre of it. The new version, however, also played on period instruments and following the original text, has a degree of spiritual force to which the earlier scarcely aspires, and that is to the credit primarily of the conductor, again John Eliot Gardiner.
It begins with a taut, almost explosive account of the overture, moves to a deeply sombre opening chorus and then a ballo of intense expressiveness, finely and carefully moulded phrases (but plenty of air between them) and a lovely translucent orchestral sound. Every one of the numerous dances in this set, in fact, is the subject of thoughtful musical characterization, shapely execution and refined timing of detail. This is of course the essence of what Gluck was seeking, music that conveys something strong and specific in terms of drama and character; I am sure he would have relished such a performance, although I think he probably would have found some of the tempos a little slower than he himself would have chosen. The Second Act too starts very powerfully, again with an intensely characterized ballo—and then with a huge unleashing of energy as the Furies let fly at the docilely lute-playing Orpheus. Exaggerated?—well, it is certainly wonderfully effective, and a reminder that this is no mere rococo entertainment and we are dealing with issues of life and death. Dynamics throughout are given full value, if not more. The choruses during this act are again very carefully weighted so that the sense of the Furies' fading resolution in the face of Orpheus's grief is progressively felt. And then, as we enter the Elysian Fields, the orchestral fabric assumes a glorious richness, sweetness and light, with gorgeously florid detail, for ''Che puro ciel!''. The 'heavenly' ambience of the remainder of the act is movingly and joyously conveyed. And the tension and violence of the first part of Act 3 is no less faithfully captured.
Derek Lee Ragin excels himself as Orpheus; the sound is often very beautiful, the phrasing quite extraordinarily supple and responsive for a countertenor voice. The arguments for a woman's voice in this role need to be taken seriously, the most important of them residing in the 'sexlessness' of the countertenor; but the more disembodied quality here (or equally in Chance's performance) has its own justification and appeal. Ragin, in any case, sings with passionate involvement—listen to the drama of the recitative at the end of Act 1, or the ardour of his pleas to the Furies, or his fervour in the duet with Eurydice at the beginning of the final act. Ragin ornaments Orpheus's part a good deal, taking his cue, and his notes, from the text alleged to have been sung by the original Orpheus, Guadagni. Whether Guadagni ornamented his part under Gluck, who was so eager to rid opera of the abuses of singers, we do not know, but he certainly did when he sang the role (in J. C. Bach's revised version, incidentally) in London. The strofe at the beginning of Act 1 is ornamented progressively, to good effect (the unusual orchestral colours are highly evocative here, too, by the way), and ''Che faro senza Euridice'' is considerably elaborated. I am not quite convinced that it gains in force from that, but we are all creatures of habit and after repeated listening it will perhaps seem more natural. Eurydice is sung clearly and truly, and with due passion, by Sylvia McNair—she delivers ''Che fiero momento'' and some of the recitative, with considerable force—and the casting of Cyndia Sieden, with her rather pert, forward voice, as Amore is very successful. There are those who will, like me, slightly prefer Chance's poised and refined artistry in Orpheus's music, but in general this is, I think, as a total interpretation of the work, more penetrating than any other in the catalogue.'