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Harvard Marks Gluck’s Tercentennial


Detail from Duplessis portrait of Gluck
Detail from Duplessis portrait of Gluck

The Harvard University Choir, alongside the period instrument orchestra Grand Harmonie, will present a concert performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, in celebration of the composer’s three-hundredth anniversary year. Julia Mintzer, a company member of the Semperoper in Dresden, and a graduate of Juilliard and the Boston University Opera Institute, will sing the role of Orfeo, with Boston favorites Amanda Forsythe and Margot Rood performing Euridice and Amore respectively. The performance on Sunday October 19th at 4pm in the Memorial Church, conducted by Edward Elwyn Jones, is free and open to the public.

Orfeo ed Euridice was premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on October 5, 1762, in celebration of the name day of the Habsburg Emperor Francis I. It was to be an auspicious day for opera: for Gluck’s revolutionary masterpiece at once looks back to the very beginnings of the artform, sets a new trajectory for Enlightenment opera, and casts enormous influence on dramatic composition from Mozart through Wagner, Debussy, and beyond.

The opera received 19 performances in Vienna in 1762 alone, and within a decade it could he heard across Europe; admirers included Voltaire and Rousseau, and it catapulted Gluck to international fame. The credit for such an explosion, however, belongs not just to the composer, but to the librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi—a Casanova-esque figure who had already laid out his thoughts on operatic reform in the introduction to his French edition of Metastasio’s libretti. These ideas would become more widely disseminated through the famous preface to Gluck’s opera Alceste (1767): vocal elaboration (and even the da capo aria form itself) would be reduced to a minimum, as would text repetition, and accompanied recitative would replace secco recitative. Organic musical scenes would be favored over delineated individual numbers, and the chorus would feature prominently; such devices were commonplace in the French Tragédie lyrique, whose influence on both Gluck and Calzabigi cannot be overstated.

Following the premiere, Gluck’s opera was subjected to a number of revisions and reworkings (all of which have their merits), but it is the original 1762 version that will be performed on October 19th, with its taut dramatic narrative and crystalline musical expression. For while not forgetting the semi-divine status of our protagonist (he is after all the god of song), this Enlightenment drama is about exploring humanity: the dramatic and musical aim is to reach the emotional core with the minimum of frills and fuss. As such, the plot is reduced to the bare essentials (likewise the cast, with just three principals and chorus), and the vocal style is as direct as possible: there is no grand entrance aria for Orfeo, just three heartfelt repetitions of the cry, “Euridice.” The text declamation is mainly syllabic—for ease of comprehension—and generally free of florid vocal embellishment. (It is worth noting, however, that in the Select Collection (1779), the renowned singing teacher Domenico Corri transcribes embellishments of three arias as sung by the original Orfeo, the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni, some of which will be incorporated.)

Detail from “Orpheus leading Eurydice from the underworld” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

Much to the delight of the collaborating period ensemble, Grand Harmonie, Gluck’s orchestration is richly inventive, utilizing a wide palette of colors: the dark-hued, archaic sounds of the cornetti and trombones in the opening funeral chorus; the howling cries and string glissandi of the underworld scene; and the remarkable evocation of nature (birdsong, flowing water, and shepherds’ pipes) in the delicate brushstrokes of “Che puro ciel.” Echo effects are employed in act 1, and other forms of spatial and temporal displacement are built into the music for dramatic purpose. The chorus, too, is evocative in all its guises: the mourners in act 1; the furies and monsters of Hades in act 2; and the joyful shepherds at the close of act 3. While there will be no dancing in this concert performance, the opera’s ballet numbers are critical to the integrity and flow of the scenes. The work’s second act became particularly famous, and was described by the French dramatist Romain Rolland as the “most moving act in all opera.” Balance and symmetry are evident across its two scenes: contrasting darkness with light, the chorus with solo voice, and the terrifying groans of hell with the natural sounds of the Elysian fields.

Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was to be a major influence on Mozart (Idomeneo and Don Giovanni contain almost direct quotations from it), and Berlioz and Debussy would become champions of it (the former preparing a version for the contralto Pauline Viardot in 1859). We even see pre-echoes of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in Calzabigi and Gluck’s masterpiece, thus paving the way for a truly new artwork of the future.

Edward Elwyn Jones is the Gund University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard University, where he directs the music program in the Memorial Church. A graduate of Cambridge University and the Mannes College of Music, he is the Music Director of the Harvard Radcliffe Chorus, and a frequent collaborator with Yale’s Schola Cantorum.

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