I was excited when I learned that Naxos was about to release a new CD of Gluck's Orphee et Euridice performed by the Opera Lafeyette Opera and Chorus. Gluck's opera is one of my longest-lived musical passions. I had the good fortune to hear the Opera Lafayette perform this opera live at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland. (The performance was a sell-out and I was lucky to get makeshift seating above and behind the stage.) It is a rare pleasure to hear on CD a memorable performance that one has experienced live of a treasured work.
There are several versions of Gluck's Orphee. Gluck composed the first version in Vienna in 1762 in Italian. He wrote the second version twelve years later in 1774 in Paris. This French version is rather more lyrical and florid that the initial version and represents something of a compromise of the spirit of opera reform shown in the 1762 score. The version of the opera most commonly performed today is an amalgamation of Gluck's two scores based on edits by Hector Berlioz in 1859.
Happily, this CD uses Gluck's 1774 Paris version which is rarely performed today. In the 1774 opera, the role of Orphee is sung by a high tenor, and the role is beautifully performed here by Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, an eminent singer of early music. The Paris version includes the famous ballet, "The Dance of the Blessed Spirits" which was not included in 1762, together with additional arias, and certain display passages in some of the vocal writing absent from the earlier Orpheo. There is a recording of the initial 1762 version of this opera also available on Naxos with the Drottingholm Theatre Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Arnold Ostman, thus giving the interested listener an opportunity to compare Gluck's initial score with the revisions he made later for the Paris Opera.
The Opera Lafeyette is a period instrument ensemble, and its performance of Orphee was its first venture in early opera. The orchestra plays with vigor and force. The overture is taken slightly slower than usual, and the winds and tympani receive great emphasis, as is also the case in the final chorus. The choral singing in the work is an inspiration, particularly in the opening scene of the opera. Fouchecourt's high tenor does best in the showy aria, "L'espoir remait dans mon ame" with which the first act concludes and in the famous "J'ai perdu mon Euridice" in which Orpheus laments the loss of his love and which is the highlight of any performance of this opera. The soprano Suzie Le Blanc has a light, lucid voice is Amor and soprano Catherine Dubose is an effective Euridice.
The opera itself tells the timeless story of how love and art can help bring meaning to life. We can understand Gluck turning from the tragedy of the classical story to bring his opera to a joyful ending. Gluck's music in this Paris version is less austere than in his 1762 score. It still combines the combination of passion and rationalism that was Gluck's gift to music.
This CD is essential for listeners that love Gluck's music. At a budget price and packaged with full libretto and notes, it should encourage many listeners to get to know the work of this great composer.