Saturday, August 29, 2009

Thinking about Gluck

I have been working on my essays about the history of singing (see technique) and have decided I am missing a chapter on Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. I have always been a doubter and expressed my doubts in this essay on the occasion of seeing a performance of Iphigénie en Tauride.

Since then I have experienced quite a bit of Gluck: two versions of Orfeo ed Euridice and one of Alceste. I still think there is no evidence that he influenced the Italians, but Wikipedia claims that he was actually quite popular in both Vienna and Paris. If the reform operas were popular, there is reason to believe they may also have been influential.

Gluck's life (1714-1787) substantially overlapped with that of Metastasio (1698-1782), the Italian opera librettist. Their careers were also substantially at the same court in Vienna where Metastasio lived from 1730. Metastasio's verses were intended for the florid Italian style which Gluck eventually rejected. It would appear that the two very different reform movements went on almost simultaneously. All the tracks on Cecilia Bartoli's Gluck album are on librettos by Metastasio.

When Gluck presented his first French opera Iphigénie en Aulide in Paris in 1774, it set off a virtual war with the proponents of Neapolitan style opera. Nothing is better for opera than quarreling. Far better than one style of opera that we love or care nothing for is two styles of opera that people can fight over. Today it is Eurotrash vs traditional staging that we fight over, though I would have to say Eurotrash seems to be winning.

He hated the formal structure of the da capo aria, especially the long instrumental introduction to the aria common in operas by Handel and the Italians, which would then be repeated in the da capo section. Here we may sympathize. Nowadays we are amused by the challenge of staging these irrelevant instrumental interludes. We stage the singers to ride up and down on escalators to fill up the time, e.g. Eventually everyone tired of the da capo aria.

Gluck’s operas are never in German, but they are still very much part of a German sensibility. To sing them does not require the lightness of Italian singing, but neither does it imply the heavy intensity of Beethoven’s Leonora. He is lumped stylistically with Mozart, but Mozart was not above expressing through coloratura and did not hesitate to compose some for a particular soprano. Mozart never falls into the kind of lugubrious monotony Gluck is often guilty of.

Gluck's operas appear to sing relatively well in a monotonous pre-Wagnerian sort of way. Alceste is very suitable to the Wagnerian technique of Christine Brewer. I'm thinking the whole thing over.

Callas is the only one who approaches the take no prisoners style I prefer for this aria.

It occurs to me that Gluck will have been the first to create a style of opera that could compete with the Italians on the international stage. French opera, which we must presume was popular in France, never accomplished this. I still see it as an alternative to Italian opera rather than an improvement on it. Italian Opera shall be presumed to be opera in Italian written by people from Italy and performed in Italy, and not German guys writing opera for Vienna.

This new strain of opera cannot be said to have won over the Italians until late Verdi a century later.

The problem I seem to be having is that I made it all the way to my seventh decade before ever seeing a staged Gluck opera. It's a little hard to think he's all that great if no one ever does him.


Paul said...

Have you heard Leontyne Price sing this aria? It's one of the cuts on her four-CD extravaganza, and I think she does a superb job. I started to listen to the clip you posted and thought to myself, "Hey, this is pretty good." Then Callas hit that high note (wobbling significantly) and then I reflected, "Oh yeah, that's why I don't like her voice." It IS one of the best Gluck arias he wrote, though, don't you think?

Dr.B said...

I haven't heard Price's performance, but I looked for it. The commenters on YouTube all talk about it. This is the best Gluck I know about.

Paul said...

Assuming I'm doing this correctly, I've placed Leontyne Price's version of this aria at the following location:


Dr.B said...

Thanks, it's fabulous!