26 March 2010

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald von Gluck – ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE (J.D. Flórez, A. Garmendia, A. Marianelli; DECCA)

Gluck's ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE (Flórez, Garmendia, Marianelli; López-Cobos - DECCA 478 2197] CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD VON GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orphée et Eurydice – J.D. Flórez (Orphée), A. Garmendia (Eurydice, une Ombre heureuse), A. Marianelli (L’Amour); Coro y Orquestra Titular del Teatro Real; Jesús López-Cobos [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Teatro Real, Madrid, 27 &30 May and 2 June 2008; DECCA 478 2197]

In two important ways, this new recording of Gluck’s 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice – unencumbered by academic conceits and awkward transpositions – seems an opportunity missed, but it must be conceded from the start that hearing Juan Diego Flórez sing the fearsomely difficult ariette ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ is one of the greatest pleasures to be had from opera during the past quarter-century.  Thankfully, Mr. Flórez’s commitment to his role does not end with the challenge of this coloratura showpiece aria, but in truth there is more to Orphée than, well, Orphée.

The gestation and performance history of Orphée et Eurydice are famously complicated matters.  Set to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, Gluck’s first version of his Orpheus opera was premiered in Vienna in 1762 with the celebrated alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni (some of whose ornaments are preserved in the singer’s hand) singing the role of Orfeo.  More than a decade later, at the zenith of his efforts to steer opera towards a closer conformity with the tenets of Classical Greek drama, Gluck adapted the score to a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline, revising the orchestration and vocal lines to comply with French tastes shaped by the music of Lully and Rameau.  Ironically, though, while the original 1762 version was groundbreaking in its avoidance of secco recitative and bravura vocal effects, the first act of the 1774 version ended with the aforementioned ariette for Orphée, ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,’ an heroic piece in the Italian style that Gluck had already used in his Il Parnaso confuso and Le feste d’Apollo.  Gluck had at his disposal as the first Paris Orphée Joseph Legros, an accomplished exponent of the typically French haute-contre vocal Fach, evidenced by the composer’s extension of Orphée’s tessitura to the E-flat above the tenor’s top C.  [Jeremy Hayes reminds the reader in his brief liner notes for this DECCA release that pitch in Eighteenth-Century Paris may have been as much as a whole tone lower than modern concert pitch, but this remains a controversial matter.]  In the Nineteenth Century, Hector Berlioz – perhaps Gluck’s most ardent champion in the century following his death in 1787 – created a version of the opera for the great mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, combining music from both the 1762 Vienna and 1774 Paris versions.  As with the great singers of the past, it was the remarkable talent of Juan Diego Flórez, and specifically his ability to cope with the high tessitura of the 1774 Paris version of the score, that inspired the Madrid concert performances from which the material for this recording (which was produced, incidentally, by the excellent Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio, Mr. Flórez’s tutor and manager) was drawn.

Fine as the singing and playing by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real (the same personnel as the Coro y Orquestra Sinfónica de Madrid) are in this performance, they ultimately are professional but no more and are let down somewhat by their conductor, Jesús López-Cobos, the outgoing Music Director of the Teatro Real.  In terms of choices of tempo, Maestro López-Cobos maintains a center-of-the-road course, avoiding the extremes and idiosyncrasies that undermine so many performances, but he also lacks the Gallic poise that the 1774 Paris version of Orphée requires, Gluck having been heavily influenced not only by Classical Greek dramatic devices but also (significantly) by the tragédies lyriques of Lully and Rameau, as well as the Mid-Century operas – neither wholly Baroque nor Classical in form – of the Italian composer Niccolò Jommelli.  In the context of a less exceptional performance than this, Maestro López-Cobos and his Teatro Real forces might well seem more than merely adequate, but it is difficult to avoid pondering what a revelatory recorded performance might have been had with ensembles like William Christie and Les Arts Florissants or Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort supporting the star tenor’s efforts.

Capable singing is contributed by both sopranos, Ainhoa Garmendia (who replaced Nicole Cabell) as Eurydice and Alessandra Marianelli as L’Amour, each singer meeting the coloratura requirements of her role with relative ease.  Ms. Garmendia sings especially beautifully in the first scene of the third act, in which Eurydice – restored to life – doubts Orphée’s love and, compelling him to betray the terms of her release from the Underworld by looking at her, perishes anew.  There is a sameness in the timbres of the sopranos, but the brevity of their roles (and, indeed, of the opera as a whole, which runs for just less than 105 minutes in this performance) prevents this from becoming wearying.

As it was in past when Léopold Simoneau and Nicolai Gedda recorded Orphée, primary interest focuses on the tenor who sings the title role.  Even with these fine performances preserved on commercial recordings, it is regrettable that neither Hugues Cuénod nor Michel Sénéchal, those paragons of French haute-contre singing, was recorded as Orphée.  Among latter-day Orphées on records, the Frenchman Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (on NAXOS) is likely the closest in style to Joseph Legos: in the present performance, Juan Diego Flórez sings with largely the same resonance that he employs in his bel canto repertory, and Richard Croft’s performance on Marc Minkowski’s recording for Archiv/DGG is something of a compromise between the two approaches.  The slight nasality of Mr. Flórez’s tone, especially in the extreme upper register, lends a certain eloquence to his French diction that projects a compelling sense of the appropriate style.  Moreover, the complete security with which Mr. Flórez encompasses the range required by the music is astonishing on its own terms.  There are perhaps a few tenors who could run him close in this music – the Americans Lawrence Brownlee and Kenneth Tarver, the Briton Toby Spence, and the Frenchman Marc Laho, for instance – but it is simply inconceivable, especially when listening to this recording, that any singer could surpass Mr. Flórez’s performance of this music.  The dreaded ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ (omitted in their respective recordings by Simoneau and Gedda, who also employed modest downward transpositions) seems hardly a challenge for Mr. Flórez, who sings the ariette with the assurance one might expect from the world’s reigning Rossini tenor par excellence.  The ease of Mr. Flórez’s singing perfectly conveys the spirit of the piece, which expresses the reawakening of hope in Orphée’s heart as he realizes that his beloved Eurydice may be restored to him.  Equally effective and even more beautiful is Mr. Flórez’s singing of the arias ‘Quel nouveau ciel’ (‘Che puro ciel’ in the Italian version) and ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ (the universally-known ‘Che farò senza Euridice’), in the latter of which one can sense Mr. Flórez willing Maestro López-Cobos to preside in a manner more sensitive to the stylistic nuances of the music.  Whatever discussions persist concerning Mr. Flórez’s singing of his typical bel canto repertory, there can be no denying that this recording of a role to which it is not likely that Mr. Flórez will often return in his career preserves the work of a great singer at the height of his abilities.

Alas, he deserved better from DECCA, the label whose reputation he has done much to maintain since making his first recording for the company a decade ago, of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto with Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset.  The recording, a composite assembled from three concert performances, is well-balanced on the whole but is a far less faithful document of the Teatro Real’s acoustics than several zarzuela recordings on other labels.  Opera lovers have accepted that ‘live’ recordings are the way of the future, being faster and less expensive to produce and release, but whereas many of the ‘live’ recordings of concert performances (EMI’s recording of Sir Simon Rattle’s account of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with the Berliner Philharmoniker, for instance) give no evidence of their origins, DECCA’s final product in this instance sounds little better than many of the so-called ‘pirated’ recordings in circulation.  [The author has, in fact, heard a ‘pirated’ recording of one of the Madrid concert performances that has both a finer, more realistic aural perspective and a less ‘produced’ dynamic spectrum, all to the good where the voices are concerned.]  There is a veritable plethora of extraneous noises to be heard, almost none of which originate with the capacity audience.  Creaking furniture and equipment, sloppy page-turns, and hosts of bumps and groans from the unseen orchestra and chorus are reproduced with startling clarity and prominence, even marring some of Mr. Flórez’s most beautiful passages.  One expects these sorts of flaws in the much-duplicated ‘private recordings’ that are traded by connoisseurs, but this is not the standard to which DECCA have aspired, nor indeed that which they achieved with their ‘live’ recording – based on staged performances, and less cluttered even so! – of Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran with Mr. Flórez and Annick Massis.  Recording the audience’s frenzied reaction to Mr. Flórez’s singing of ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ is understandable, as the enthusiasm is wholly justified and the ariette also ends the first act, but the inclusion of the ovation following ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ impedes the emotional development of the final act and frankly seems gratuitous.  In fairness, the sonic blemishes in this recording only slightly distract the listener, but like a precious gem the superb performance by Mr. Flórez deserved a setting worthy of its brilliance.

The very difficulty of the music for Orphée in the 1774 Paris version of Gluck’s masterful opera makes it unlikely that the 1762 Vienna version will ever be supplanted in the international repertory, especially as there are now talented countertenors who can bring to the contralto vocal lines something at least theoretically like the impact that Guadagni had as Orfeo.  Nonetheless, only with this performance by Juan Diego Flórez has the 1774 version of the score gained a complete recording that can stand in the company of the timeless performances by Kathleen Ferrier and Dame Janet Baker.Madrid's Teatro Real [photo by the author, 10.2008]