Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gluck was the first great opera reformer, who restored opera to the principles that governed the true pioneers a century and a half earlier. On the way, after Monteverdi left the scene, sundry talented composers managed to move opera away from the right track and urged by ambitious singers, who wanted to show off their technical accomplishment, they sacrificed drama and psychological credibility on the altar of vocal virtuosity. Gluck wanted to clear away this façade and presented the first reform opera,
Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762. The libretto was written by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi with whom Gluck collaborated in another five operas, the next in turn being
Alceste, premiered also in Vienna in 1767. Both works were subjected to revisions – re-workings may be a better word – and appeared in French versions when the composer settled in Paris. For many years they were primarily performed in French,
Orfeo in various amalgamated versions. In due time some opera houses returned to the Viennese originals.
Alceste was performed at La Scala in 1954 under Carlo Maria Giulini and with Maria Callas in the title role. There exists a recording of that production. Two years after that Decca made the present studio recording in London and presumably to mark the relationship between Gluck and the next great reformer, Richard Wagner, they chose for the title role the great Brünnhilde and Isolde of the day Kirsten Flagstad, who by then was past sixty. For the role of Admeto they picked the Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin, who was just about ten years younger and had also taken on some Wagner roles: Lohengrin and Walther in
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Two British singers at the beginning of what would turn out to be important careers were also engaged: tenor Alexander Young, best known perhaps as a stylish oratorio singer, and baritone Thomas Hemsley, then not yet thirty. Manchester-born soprano Marion Lowe, who spent her entire opera career at Sadler’s Wells, was also in her best years, as can be heard in her rendition of Ismene’s role. She passed away a little more than two years ago.
Two other recordings should be mentioned. In 1982 Orfeo recorded
Alceste in the French version in Munich under Serge Baudo with a starry cast including Jessye Norman in the title role, Nicolai Gedda as Admeto and Robert Gambill, Siegmund Nimsgern and Tom Krause in other roles. Finally in 1998 Naxos recorded the Vienna version at the Drottningholm Court Theatre with the chorus and orchestra of the house, playing on period instrument and at baroque pitch with Gluck and Mozart specialist Arnold Östman at the helm. Teresa Ringholz and Justin Lavender were Alceste and Admeto with a supporting cast of young Swedish singers. This has been my comparison and since the Hänssler issue has only a synopsis it was good to have the Naxos booklet with full libretto and English translation. There may be other recordings around that I have no knowledge about.
The Decca recording shows its age but is fully listenable and even though the dynamic scope is narrow and there is a lack of bloom on the instruments, especially the strings, the Decca technicians have produced a clean sound and the brass is rather impressive in the dramatic climaxes. It is possible that Hänssler have had access to the master-tapes. The orchestra is slightly recessed but there is still presence enough. Geraint Jones was well versed in baroque music performance practice of his day, which isn’t exactly the practice that specialists advocate today. He founded the Geraint Jones Singers and Orchestra in 1951 and they were closely knit when this recording was made. Comparing his reading with Arnold Östman’s the differences in pitch are of course notable. He prefers a more legato style of playing, where Östman has a lighter and more transparent facture, further standing out through the crisper sounds of the period instruments. In the mid-fifties it was also fully acceptable to make heavy ritardandi at the end of arias or ritornelli and he is much slower. Timings do not tell the whole story but are an indication anyway:
Act 1: Jones 60:30 Östman 49:45
Act 2: Jones 75:06 Östman 63:30
Act 3: Jones 37:37 Östman 33:40
These are very clear figures. Add to this that Jones makes several cuts in act 2. He cuts heavily also at the beginning of act 3, where the opening Evandro-Admeto scene is excised (it takes a good three minutes in Östman’s reading), which means that the act begins with Admeto’s aria
Misero! E che faro! On the other hand Jones includes much more music in the moving Scene III of that act, where all mourn the loss of Alceste. This is deeply involved music and I don’t understand why it wasn’t included in the Östman set. Anyway, the overall impressing is that Östman dances while Jones walks.
The effect of this is sometimes a sense of oratorio – and it is not only the tempos but also a heavier approach. This is also reinforced by the heavy Wagnerian voices of the central couple – Östman has much lighter, lyrical singers. This greater weight is not altogether a bad thing. Some of the dramatic and tragic scenes make a greater impact through the nobility and unearthly atmosphere that is created. Östman is more earthbound – in spite of his dancing. Let me take an isolated example to show the difference. In the final scene of the opera,
Scena ultima, Apollo arrives on a shining cloud and declares that Admeto’s suffering has aroused pity in heaven and thus he gives back Alceste to him. Apollo – sung by Thomas Hemsley – is noble, dignified and solemn and as a listener one is aware of something extraordinary happening. Östman’s Apollo – sung by the excellent Lars Martinsson – is ‘common’: light and conversant, the boy next door who reports that ‘the lady is back’.
Kirsten Flagstad made her operatic debut in 1913 as Nuri in d’Albert’s
Tiefland and during the next fifteen years she appeared mainly in lyrical opera and operetta roles with the odd lirico-spinto role sprinkled in: Desdemona, Minnie in
La fanciulla del West, Aida and Tosca. Not until 1929, the same year she sang the two last-mentioned roles, she sang Elsa in
Lohengrin and the following year Eva in
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, but these are still fairly lyrical roles. Then in 1932, at the age of 37, she sang her first Isolde – till the end of her career she sang the role another 181 times! – and this set the ball rolling, From then on all her new roles in the 1930s – apart from Leonora in
Fidelio – were Wagnerian heroines. After Senta in 1937 she added only three more new roles: Rezia in
Oberon (1942), the title role in
Alceste (1943) and in 1951 Dido in
Dido and Aeneas. As Dido she appeared 111 times, next to Isolde her most frequent role, while Alceste was limited to 8 performances. In 1956, when the present recording was made, she had retired from the opera stage but she still appeared in concert. One of these was a performance of
Alceste that led to this recording.
Considering her age and the extraordinarily heavy Wagnerian diet she had held for almost twenty-five years her voice was in remarkably good shape: steady, not a trace of a widened vibrato and she could still apply a light, lyrical, girlish tone that was surprisingly fresh. Most of all one recognizes the grand, noble voice of the tragic heroine in so many Wagner operas. One also recognizes her scooping and sliding from note to note.
Portamento is the Italian word for this means of creating a fine legato but Flagstad in the fifties scooped. You notice it and it diminishes the nobility but her singing is still admirable and she even sports a perfect trill in her second act aria
Non vi turbate, no, sung with beautiful restraint. In act one she is human and vulnerable in the aria
Ombre, larve, better known as
Divinités du Styx in the French version. Teresa Ringholz on the Östman set is altogether lighter and not so regal and neither of them comes anywhere near the formidable Alceste of Maria Callas – I’m talking now about her 1961 studio recording of the aria – but her excessive vibrato and shrillness at fortissimo is on the other hand hard to stomach. Flagstad is at her most intense in the dramatic recitative
Parti, sola restai in act 2, where Brünnhilde isn’t far away.
Raoul Jobin attacks his role with the same open-throated intensity as Giuseppe Di Stefano – probably not what Gluck had in mind but his is a thrilling reading of the role, even though he is rather strained at times. His duet with Alceste in act 2,
Ah perché con quelle lagrime and the following long dramatic recitative is a high spot. Justin Lavender for Östman is again much more lyrical and feels a little pale by the side of Jobin but he is dramatic in a more restricted way and stylistically more 18
th century correct.
Evandro is a weaker character and Alexander Young’s mellifluous voice is well suited to the role. He also has the glow needed for the intense second act aria
Or che morte il suo furore. Jonas Degerfeldt on the Drottningholm set is arguably more youthful and has the same smooth delivery. Marion Lowe is a splendid Ismene with beautiful tone and a grandezza almost on a par with Flagstad in her aria
Parto, me senti? at the beginning of act 2.
As readers will already have concluded these two versions are wide apart dramatically and stylistically, which doesn’t necessarily imply that one of them is inferior. For a library set of the Vienna version, recorded in excellent sound in the 18
th century Drottningholm Court Theatre with playing and singing that is arguably as close as possible to what the composer would have expected, the Arnold Östman set is a must-have. Geraint Jones’s set, on the other hand, has a grandeur and elevated nobility that, with one of the great soprano legends in the title role, makes it a unique listening experience, in spite of slowish tempi and a more romantic musical approach. The recorded sound is also dated, there is no libretto and – a definite drawback – parsimonious cue points. Hänssler offer only one track per scene, i.e. act 1 – 8 tracks, act 2 – 6 tracks and act 3 – 5 tracks. Naxos are very generous: act 1 – 29 tracks, act 2 – 32 tracks and act 3 – 21 tracks. On Naxos you can find practically every single aria and recitative at once but finding a particular number on the Hänssler involves a lot of searching on the fast-forward button. There is also a substantial price difference. On CD Universe the Naxos set costs $19.89 and the Hänssler $ 38:54, which is still cheap; list price is $12.45 higher.
– Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International