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Reviving a Searing Attack on Opera Seria


Detail from Duplessis portrait of Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s name appears more frequently in musical textbooks than in concert programs today; though performances of his better-known works (Orfeo, both Iphigénies, and Alceste) do visit contemporary stages periodically, they are by no means standards of the operatic stage. Therefore, his opera Alceste, will be arriving as something of a novelty, when Edward Elwyn Jones leads the Harvard University Choir, Gran Harmonie, and local soloists Hailey Fuqua, Jonas Budris, and Sumner Thompson in a free concert version at Memorial Church on October 20th  at 7:30.  According to Jones:

Throughout his oeuvre, Gluck aimed for melody that is “noble, expressive, and natural, and declaimed exactly according to the prosody of the language.” The composer’s direct, immediate vocal style propels his dramas vividly, bringing tireless human emotions to life on the stage.

 Alceste’s notable arias are simple and direct: the regal “O Dieux! Du destin;” the authoritative “Divinités du Styx;” the exquisite “Ah, divinités implacables;” and the heartbreakingly poignant “Vis pour garder le souvenir.” But it is surely in the accompanied recits that we see Gluck’s true genius in portraying emotion: Alceste’s torn personality is progressing rapidly towards Gluck’s ultimate study of human psychology, Iphigenie en Tauride.

Based on the Alcestis of Euripides, the opera debuted (in Italian) at Vienna’s Burgtheater on December 26, 1767; when the score was published in 1769, Gluck added a preface penned by the librettist Calzabigi and signed by the composer himself: it is a searing attack on contemporary Italian Opera Seria (which was thought to have sacrificed everything—text, drama, realism—to the altar of vocal pyrotechnics) and a manifesto of reform. A simple, mainly syllabic setting of text would henceforth prevail: vocal elaboration (and even the da capo aria form itself) would be reduced to a minimum—likewise text repetition—and accompanied recitative would replace secco recitative. A greater theatrical urgency was paramount: organic musical scenes would be favored over delineated individual numbers, and the chorus would feature prominently. When Gluck moved to Paris—under the patronage of his former pupil Marie-Antoinette—he heavily revised Alceste, with a new French libretto by Leblanc du Roullet, which was premiered at the Paris Opera on April 23, 1776: the French-language reworking has become the standard version, and the one to be heard: complete, save for the very lengthy ballet music.

Gluck used the orchestra brilliantly to portray conflicting emotions; it becomes a major player in the drama. While the singer recites in calm and poised tones, a syncopated rhythmic figure will often nag away in the orchestra, suggesting that all is not as it seems on the surface. We are so used to listening to operatic orchestras behave in this way that one forgets how novel such devices were to Gluck’s audience. While the underworld gods in Act Three chant on a monotone, Gluck leaves it to the orchestra to paint their terrible words. In addition, the orchestration is richly inventive, utilizing a wide palette of colors alongside an array of inventive orchestral effects. (Berlioz would cite from Alceste at length in his famous Treatise on Orchestration.)

Bruckner is being greeted in heaven by Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Carl Maria von Weber, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Joseph Haydn, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach (playing the organ).

The chorus, too, plays a key dramatic role in Alceste: Gluck expands both the import of the chorus, and also its range of emotions. As with the great Athenian Tragedians—Aeschylus in the Agamemnon would reserve some of his most exotic, lyrical, and horrifying poetry for the chorus—Gluck explores that gamut of human emotions through the chorus, whose tones are at once deliciously sweet and monstrously ugly.

Gluck’s shadow looms very heavily over subsequent music drama. Leopold Mozart was none too impressed with Alceste, but the work made a major impression on his eleven-year-old son: Idomeneo is unimaginable without Alceste; Don Giovanni quotes directly from it; and even Magic Flute contains an array of sonic references to it. Berlioz was obsessed with the work, and his prose writings wax lyrical about it; indeed, Les Troyens might be the ultimate homage to Alceste and Gluckian musical drama. Weber and Wagner, too, are unthinkable without Gluck’s influence, and the penetrating psychological insight of Richard Strauss—particularly in his Classical female protagonists Elektra, Ariadne, Daphne, and Helen—owes much to Gluck’s precedents (it is worth remembering that both Wagner and Strauss conducted Gluck’s works).

Perhaps Gluck’s greatest achievement is his ability to portray timeless human emotions through music, depicting deep and, often, conflicted characters who seem as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago. Berlioz’s words provide a perfect summation: “When listening to Beethoven, one feels it is Beethoven singing; when listening to Gluck, one feels that it is the characters themselves.”

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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  1. How did I ever miss this article? Yes, it is the text that was in the Alcestis program for the concert. I have now seen three stagings of Gluck (Orfeo-1762 Vienna version; Iphigenia in Tauride; and Ezio, which is Gluck pre-“reform”) and I will defend Opera Seria which I do love. OK, Gluck’s technique in orchestration and orchestral color masks his faults in unimaginative composition. In Gluck’s time he had a French rival, either Rameau or probably Gretry, of whom one musician wrote “you could drive a coach and six between his treble and his bass”; that composer had hirelings write the inner parts for him; maybe Gluck did that too. In Gluck’s later operas the music is subordinate to the drama in part because it’s not great music, almost like the composer is holding his punches to avoid being noticed. Having now seen several operas written for the Paris “market” I can say the Parisians wanted tableau-like spectacles (think Jacobean and Restoration masques) of scenes from a story and holding strictly to the dramatic “unities” rather than any real plot motion which is vital to opera seria. While parts of Alcestis were dramatically and musically intense (between Admetus and Alcestis) other parts some choruses and anything involving Hercules were lackluster. Musical and entertainment tastes were changing (like to read a piece on what the target market audience was like in 1776 Paris) and opera seria may have been TOO demanding of an audience as requiring them to think too much. During the Revolution during the Reign of Terror phase (1793) a piece written for one of the Revolutionary spetacles got played on WCRB years ago (no comment!) and it sounded decidedly 30 years out of fashion like the Revolutionaries were going back to an earlier “purity”; one thinks of the English Puritans for such things. There may be a reason why music from other countries in this period gets played more often nowadays than that of France. As I get more experience I am less enthralled with Gluck’s “reforms”: they did lead to some rather dull music that fortunately is rarely performed, perhaps for that very reason. Improvements in greater musical expression had to and did come from other sources but opera seria left its influences for another century–so don’t knock it!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 21, 2018 at 9:25 pm

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