Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gluck confronts the basic life principle that when you're dead, you're dead

And one last time: We hear Marilyn Horne sing "Divinités du Styx" from Gluck's Alceste again, in a performance I'd guess is about 20 years later than the early recording we heard in our Friday and Saturday previews. Some YouTube commenters natter about the downward transposition, apparently unaware that in Gluck's time it would have been done without hesitation. (The conductor, by the way, is Horne's longtime accompanist Martin Katz.)

"It would be frightful if the dead came back."
-- King Herod, in Richard Strauss's Salome
(text adapted from Oscar Wilde's play)

by Ken

We left Alceste last night more or less knocking at the gates of Hell, bound to trade her life for that of her husband, Admète, king of Thessaly.

Is it just a coincidence that two of Christoph Willibald von Gluck's three Vienna "reform" operas, Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice, chronicled the two most famous breeches in Greek legend of the basic principle that once you're dead, you're dead? As noted, this principle was especially dear to King Herod, no doubt because he had personally moved so many people from the "not dead" to "dead" column.
from Richard Strauss's Salome:

JOCHANAAN (JOHN THE BAPTIST) [from the cistern in which he is imprisoned]: See, the day is at hand, the day of the Lord, and I hear in the mountains the footsteps of Him who will be the Redeemer of the World.
HEROD: What is that supposed to mean, the Redeemer of the World?
1st NAZARENE: The Messiah has come.
1st JEW [of Herod's five court Jews]: The Messiah has not come.
1st NAZARENE: He has come, and everywhere he is working miracles. At a wedding in Galilee he changed water into wine. He healed two lepers of Capernaum . . .
2nd NAZARENE: By simply touching them.
1st NAZARENE: He has also cured the blind. He has been seen on a mountain in conversation with angels.
HERODIAS: Oho! I don't believe in miracles. I have seen too many.
1st NAZARENE: The daughter of Jairus -- he awakened her from the dead.
HEROD: What? He awakens the dead?
1st and 2nd NAZARENES: Yes indeed, he awakens the dead.
HEROD: I forbid him to do that! It would be frightful if the dead came back. Where is the man at the moment?
1st NAZARENE: Sir, he is everywhere, but it's hard to find him.
HEROD: The man must be found.
2nd NAZARENE: It's said that he's in Samaria.
1st NAZARENE: He left Samaria a couple of days ago. I believe he's in the neighborhood of Jerusalem.
HEROD: Just listen: I forbid him to awaken the dead. It would be frightful if the dead came back.
VOICE OF JOCHANAAN: O, about this wanton woman, the daughter of Babylon, thus says the Lord our God . . .
HERODIAS: Order him to be quiet.

Bryn Terfel (b), Jochanaan (John the Baptist); Kenneth Riegel (t), Herod; Peter Rose (bs), 1st Nazarene; Uwe Peper (t), 1st Jew; Hanna Schwarz (ms), Herodias; Martin Gantner (b), 2nd Nazarene; Vienna Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded Apr. 11-18, 1994

I never knew I had any special relationship with the opening chorus of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice until I saw it trashed. A friend had invited me to the last New York City Opera production, in which the chorus was banished to the orchestra pit, leaving the job of trying to console Orfeo on the unimaginable and inconsolable loss of his adored wife Euridice to a bunch of dancers flitting mutely around the stage.

I think maybe it sneaked up on me, because one of life's inevitabilities is that you grow older, you more often find yourself in this position -- trying to provide some sort of consolation to people close to you who are grieving, when you have no consolation to offer, only sympathy and the knowledge that you're there for them. None of that helps, of course, at least with the grief, but the psyche has a separate chamber where those expressions of sympathy and communality are stored up for the time when they can be drawn on for the necessary psychical reconstruction project.

And here in this infuriatingly pretentious and misbegotten production, listening to the hidden-away chorus do the heavy lifting in this scene, I suddenly grasped the Gluck had been through this territory, charting a path for those of us destined to follow. The scene, I suddenly understood, is about two impossibilities: the impossibility of Orfeo dealing with his grief, and the impossibility of his friends, feeling the loss of Eurdice intensely personally themselves, and feeling so much of Orfeo's pain, to reach across that barrier of loss.

Well, this hack director had certainly made it literally impossible for the chorus to reach out to Orfeo. Unfortunately, because he apparently doesn't know much about human beings, he had cut Orfeo's friends off in the one way they're not separated from him: physical closeness. Anyway, here are some distinctly different-sounding versions of the opening of the scene:

GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice: Act I, "Ah! Dans ce bois tranquille"
The translation is of the French version. (The Italian is similar.)

ORPHÉE periodically punctuates the chorus with cries of "Eurydice!"

NYMPHS AND SHEPHERDS: Ah, in this tranquil and somber wood,
Eurydice, if your spirit hears us,
be moved by our alarms,
See our sufferings, see our tears
That are shed for you.
Ah, take pity on the unhappy Orphée!
He sighs, he moans, he laments his fate.
The loving turtledove,
always tender, always faithful,
thus sighs and dies of sorrow.

In Italian: Risë Stevens, mezzo-soprano; Rome Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded June 15-26, 1957

In French: Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Monteverdi Choir, Orchestra of the Opéra du Lyon, John Eliot Gardiner, cond. EMI, recorded Jan. 29-Feb. 2, 1989

In French: Richard Croft, tenor; Chorus of Les Musiciens du Louvre, Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski, cond. [pitch: A = 403] Archiv, recorded June 2002

The gods having heard Orpheus's pleas, in Act II he descends into the Underworld to retrieve Euridice. There he encounters first the Furies and then the gathering of Blessed Spirits, for both of which Gluck added appropriate dance music in the expanded Paris version of Orfeo.

GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice: Act II, Dance of the Furies

Rome Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded June 15-26, 1957

Orchestra of the Opéra du Lyon, John Eliot Gardiner, cond. EMI, recorded Jan. 29-Feb. 2, 1989

GLUCK: Orphée et Eurydice: Act II, Dance of the Blessed Spirits

Rome Opera Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded June 15-26, 1957

Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski, cond. [pitch: A = 403] Archiv, recorded live June 2002

Orfeo finally finds Euridice but has strict instructions not to look back at her until he has led her safely out of Hades, or else! Of course he also can't explain why he won't look at her, and she assumes he has abandoned her. Finally he is unable to resist glancing back, and promptly she dies -- again. Horrified by what he has done, he sings the aria that is probably the best-known music Gluck wrote: "Che farò senza Euridice?" ("What will I do without Euridice?") in the original Italian, "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" ("I have lost my Eurydice") in the French translation.

We hear first the original Italian version, sung by a female (rather than castrated male) alto, then the revised French version for tenor, and finally -- I couldn't resist -- the young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sailing through (basically) the Italian version taken down an octave, though the German translation he sings ("Ach, ich habe sie verloren") appears based on the French text.

GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice: Act III, "Che farò senza Euridice?"
The translation is of the French text. (The Italian is similar.)

ORPHEUS: I have lost my Eurydice.
Nothing equals my unhappiness.
Cruel fate! What severity!
Nothing equals my unhappiness.
I succumb to my sorrow.

Eurydice! Eurydice!
Answer! What torture!
Answer me. It's your faithful spouse.
Hear my voice that's calling you.

I have lost my Eurydice. etc.

Eurydice! Eurydice!

Fatal silence!
Vain hope!
What suffering!
What torments tear at my heart!

I have lost my Eurydice. etc.

In Italian: Vesselina Kasarova, mezzo-soprano; Munich Radio Orchestra, Friedrich Haider, cond. BMG, recorded Sept. 11-16, 1996

In French: Richard Croft, tenor; Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski, cond. [pitch: A = 403] Archiv, recorded live June 2002

In German: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded Sept. 8-12, 1956


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