Thursday, July 3, 2014

Christoph Willibald Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice


   When Christoph Willibald Gluck was born, the 2nd of July in 1714, Europe was still in the state of war, but the clash of arms was heard mainly on peripheries of the continent. It was breakthrough year in Great Nothern War of Russian-Polish-Danish coalition against Swedish domination on Baltic Sea region. After long siege Barcelona was taken and Spanish Succession War was about to end. Republic of Venice isolated in newly established European balance has been attacked by Ottoman Empire in what was later called the Small War. The state of permanent variability was enhanced by rapid changes in science and technologies. Old habits and regimes were in permanent collision with new ideas and the progress in science and humanities. The conflicts in first half of 18th century were principally the echoes of global crisis in 17th century and the best solution was to clear oversized systems of the values and to start entirely new ideological standpoint. This situation has strong influence on creating the classical music, art of classicism, philosophy and science of the Enlightment era.
   In 18th century opera was one of well established musical forms, with more than a century of history. The moment opera started in 1600 marked the beginning of new era, but in fact it was not clearly baroque form. Conceptually opera was build entirely on renaissance idea of synthesis of arts, but in first century of its development new form was under strong effect of baroque culture. Many composers of opera and dramma per musica were making numerous concessions to singers’ vanity and audience’s expectations. This led to dramatic weakness and caricaturally changed proportions of various components of opera. Some baroque composers tried to restore the idea of balanced elements from various fields of art, but the one who made the first real reform of opera was Christoph Willibald Gluck. He subordinated music to drama and restored dominant position of dramatic effect obtained by play, music and every other element. Even overture had its dramatic function. He also reinforced the position of the choir, and reduced difference between arias and recitatives. 

Grace Bumbry, Václav Neumann – Gluck – Orfeo ed Euridice (1966)

   Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the greatest opera composers ever. Thank to collaboration with librettist Raniero de’Calzabigi he was able to create works showing this form in new light. After about two dozens of traditional operatic works in Italian style, in 1762 he produced first opera of new type Orfeo ed Euridice. After Viennese premiere his reforms were poorly received. Paris was more ready to break with tradition and the work was acclaimed. His next operas Alceste (1767) Paride et Elena (1770), Iphigénie en Aulide (1774), Armide (1777) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) became successful realizations of new operatic esthetics. This reform decided opera was able to survive and be well in the era of Enlightenment. Gluck was recognized opera composer but his instrumental music never become popular, although nine symphonies and eight trio sonatas complement the picture of his creative possibilities. He was also composing sacred works even if he did it very rarely. His small portfolio of religious works comprises De profundis clamavi for choir and orchestra and lost Miserere.
   Later works give composer appreciation but 250 years later Orfeo ed Euridice is the most popular opera by Gluck. This work is transitional form between opera in Italian style and new trends. Maybe this is what makes the work so flexible. There are dozens of great performances on vinyl and on digital media. One of old but still very clear is 1966 recording made in Heilandskirche in Leipzig. Published under Eterna label but in cooperation with Electrola, during next years this recording was frequently republished in various countries. Perfectly sung by Grace Bumbry (Orfeo), Anneliese Rothenberger (Euridice) and Ruth-Margaret Pütz (Amore) with Rundfunkchor Leipzig and Gevandhausorchester Leipzig under direction by Václav Neumann, this is great recording. In fact it still sounds fresh, and after almost half of the century this is clear exposure of quality rendition. 

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