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Christoph Willibald Gluck Orphée et Eurydice Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Despite some shortcomings, the poignancy of the music shines through here.

Graham Rogers 2010

With beguiling melodies and enthralling emotional involvement sweeping away staid conventions, it is easy to see why Gluck’s treatment of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld is such an operatic milestone. Unlike the Greek legend, Gluck’s opera ends happily for the hero and his beloved Eurydice; sadly, this new recording does not offer enough other reasons to smile.

Conductor Jesus López-Cobos and Madrid's Teatro Real opt for Gluck’s 1774 French revision of the opera, recorded far less than the 1762 original or Berlioz’s 19th century edition. Besides additional music, the most significant update was the transposition of the male lead from castrato (today sung by soprano or mezzo) to virile high tenor. Step forward Juan Diego Florez, ostensibly this release’s star attraction. Florez is famed as a bel canto phenomenon in Rossini and Donizetti, but Gluck’s simpler galant style is another matter. Without dazzling vocal fireworks Florez’s tone often sounds brittle and grating.

Even in its heyday the high tenor (“haute-contre”) seems to have been an acquired taste: the philosopher Rousseau referred to the “unnatural” nature of this “shrillest of voices” that “always has some harshness and is never in tune”. This last complaint cannot be levelled at Florez, but otherwise he comes uncannily close to Rousseau’s description. With welcome exceptions such as tender duets with Ainhoa Garmendia's Eurydice, Florez’s stridency lacks sensitivity. He made a great impression in the flesh, however, to judge by the rapturous audience reactions on this live recording. It may not be pretty, but it is certainly heroic and fairly authentic – although as contemporary pitch was well below that of this modern-instrument performance, Gluck did not intend his tenor to have to strain quite so much.

The orchestra can play stylishly, but the violins are too closely miked, emphasising their scrawny tone. Florez’s affecting rendition of the famous aria, “J'ai perdu mon Eurydice”, is sabotaged by hacking accompaniment. López-Cobos's direction varies wildly from spry – the Dance of the Furies is thrillingly driven – to stodgy and unidiomatic. The chorus is unfocused, but Alessandra Marianelli’s L'Amor is an unqualified delight.

Despite the recording’s shortcomings, the poignancy of the music shines through – and it offers a welcome, all-too rare, chance to hear Orpheus sung by a man as Gluck always intended.

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