GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice – Ewa Podleś, contralto / Ana Rodrigo and Elena de la Merced, sopranos / Coro de la Comunidad de Madrid/ Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia / Peter Maag – Arts Music multichannel SACD 47753-8 (2 discs), 34:29; 69:14 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Premiered in Vienna in 1762, Orfeo ed Euridice was the first of Gluck’s reform operas and remained the most popular of his works, so much so that it was recycled several times, once by the composer himself. This resulted in the Paris version of 1774 (renamed Orphée et Eurydice), to a French libretto and with added numbers, including additional bits for the corps de ballet to appease the French hunger for dance.
The Vienna version featured a castrato in the role of Orpheus; in later, more humane times such as ours, this role was taken by a contralto or mezzo. In the French version, Gluck supposedly achieved his original intention of scoring Orpheus for a tenor—in this case a high tenor, known in France as the haute-contre, whose range borders on that of the countertenor. To complicate the matter of choice for a company wanting to perform Orfeo, in 1859 Berlioz made an arrangement of the French version in which he tinkered with the orchestration and most importantly recast the role of Orpheus for alto.
All three versions have been recorded—in fact, Ewa Podleś has recorded the Berlioz version as well—though the 1762 version, in Italian, remains the most widely performed and recorded. Following precedent, Peter Maag has chosen a kind of hybrid version of Orfeo ed Euridice that adds popular numbers from the 1774 reworking. One of these is the trio from Act III, scene ii, Son d’amore son le pene, which gives the end of the opera a more conclusive feeling. Another is Orfeo’s show-stopping aria from the end of Act I, Addio, addio o mei sospiri. Since this coloratura tour de force flies in the face of Gluck’s reformist simplicity of manner, some critics think it may not be by him at all. It gives a chance for Podleś to show off her incredible range, from cavernous chest tones to head tones that scrape the upper reaches of the contralto tessitura.
Truth be told, Ewa Podleś is probably the raison d’etre for this recording, if not for the live performance from which it’s taken. Her beautifully sung, pathos-rich performance is certainly the main reason to return to the recording, fine as the other performances are. In terms of vocal production and emotive quality, her voice reminds me of Janet Baker’s though—dare I say it?—without the ruggedness: for me, a big plus whenever I return to Podleś’ performance.
As I say, the other performances, all two of them, are good as well, especially Ana Rodrigo’s sweet-toned, melting portrayal of Euridice. Elena de la Merced as Amor has less to do but does it with an emphatic delivery that’s distinctive.
Peter Maag’s affinity for the Classical repertoire shows here, as does his reputation for well-drilled performances. His choral and orchestral forces do him proud. Especially given that this is a live performance, bravo to the horns for their playing in the chorus Torna do bella al tuo consorte, which ends Act II, and the final chorus, Trionfi amore. In some ways, however, this is a comfortable, slightly old-fashioned sort of performance, without the thrust and electricity the original-instruments crowd brings to the work. For that, you’ll need to turn to René Jacobs (1762 version) or Marc Minkowski (1774 version).
The SACD recording is a good one, with a decent sense of depth and placement, plus a very present chorus, which might have sounded more realistically placed if given a bit of distancing. But this is a small point. Audience noise, except for the appreciative cheers at the end of acts, is almost non-existent.
While to a large extent this Orfeo ed Euridice is Ewa Podleś’ show, it clearly has enough other virtues to commend it to fans of Gluck’s opera.
— Lee Passarella