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Three new versions of Gluck’s great reform opera Orfeo ed Euridice arrive together and invite comparison. Firstly a recording of the 1762 Vienna version, as performed at the premiere for Maria Theresa, here with a countertenor replacing the original castrato; then a film of the 1774 version, Orphée et Euridice, revised by Gluck for Paris for a haut contre tenor (due to the French lack of interest in castrati); and finally a film of the 1859 revision by Berlioz, revised by him for the legendary mezzo soprano Pauline Viardot.

Which version one prefers is obviously a matter of taste. I enjoyed the bravura of the two revised versions, but all three have selling points. In these offerings I certainly feel that one recording pulls ahead of the rivals.

The CD of the original 1762 version has David Bates conducting, and he provides a bright, lively and rhythmic reading – crisp and commanding. The studio recording is, perhaps, a little overenthusiastic on the sound effects. For 1774 we have Harry Bicket leading, and his is the most traditional reading, but it should be noted that it comes from the San Francisco Opera which seats over 3,000 and accompanies a large- scale production. For the 1859 production at the Opéra Comique, Raphaël Pichon conducts with extraordinary vigour and almost violence, a fascinating reading full of risks and surprises – he is not afraid of a pause stretching to uncomfortable silence or pushing the scoring into its underlying dissonance.

Of the two films, the Paris performance pulls ahead once again, not least by virtue of its intimate setting: San Francisco is just too enormous for a small scale tragedy. At the Opéra Comique, Aurélien Bory creates a magical world set against a vast reproduction of Corot’s painting Orphée ramenant Eurydice aux Enfers. He utilises Pepper’s Ghost, the19th-century illusionary effect, to intrigue and confuse – who is singing, which performer is the real one? His use of choreography is equally inventive: simple but surprising, controlled but mystical. It’s a suitably fascinating production, balancing efficiency with ambiguity. In the San Francisco film, John Neumeier attends to every aspect of the performance and while it’s slick, it is very plot-driven and overly theatrical – his Orphée is a ballet master whose beloved prima ballerina, Eurydice, is killed in a car crash, leading to his search for inner peace. It is interesting but curiously uninvolving. His choreography, danced by the Joffrey Ballet, is skilfully performed but seems generic. It doesn’t transcend its own staginess.

Any Orfeo/Orphée is reliant on its star to make or break the performance. In the studio CDs, Iestyn Davies’ countertenor sounds very fine, with his slightly nasal quality which veers between beauty and hooty, while overall he lacks fire. This Orfeo seems sadly to have mislaid his keys rather than suffered the loss of his wife. He is searching through his pockets, not the underworld. In San Francisco, the tenor Dmitry Korchak takes on the almost superhuman task of the tenor version and triumphs. His tone is not overly unique or alluring, but he thrillingly surmounts the incredible vocal hurdles, not least the punishingly high tessitura, with guts and not a little technique. He is a good actor, if not a great one, and is rewarded understandably with a standing ovation.

Which leaves Marianne Crebassa as Orphée in Paris, and who gives a phenomenal performance. She looks androgynously stunning, sings with great technical accuracy and, above all, has a rare and calm poise. She manages to both internalise her emotions and still convey them to the audience. Her cadenza to ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’ is a masterclass in how to pause your singing and have the audience hanging on your next phrase – the silence thrums… Mesmerising.

The supporting casts are solid. Davies has Sophie Bevan as a sprightly Amore and Rebecca Bottone as a spirited Euridice. Korchak is up against Andriana Chuchman’s rich-toned Euridice and Lauren Snouffer’s stylish Amour. Crebassa has Hélène Guilmette as a strong Eurydice and Lea Desandre as an interestingly weightier-voice Amour than usual. Korchak’s mighty Orphée aside, the Opéra Comique comes up trumps with Bory, Pichon and Crebassa combining to create a performance of rare fascination.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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