Orfeo ed Euridice

Christoph Gluck
Glyndebourne Festival Opera

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Elisabeth Speiser (Euridice) and Janet Baker (Orfeo) Credit: Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Elizabeth Gale (Amore) Credit: Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Elisabeth Speiser (Euridice) and Janet Baker (Orfeo) Credit: Glyndebourne Festival Opera

The video is a little fuzzy, the recording of the orchestra rather scratchy. Then the words break through: "Euridice... Euridice... Euridice," not loud but somehow commanding.

The voice is rich, velvety, something to wrap yourself in, that of Janet Baker in her signature role of Orfeo. This was her final operatic engagement, in Peter Hall’s magnificent production at Glyndebourne, where she began her professional career.

Orfeo is mourning the death of his wife, Euridice, but the god Amore allows him to bring her back from the kingdom of the dead if he can soothe the furies with his lyre, but imposes a condition that he must not look upon her on the journey. Accused of scorning her, however, Orfeo breaks the condition, and she dies again under his loving gaze. Once more, moved by pity, Amore restores her to health, leading to general rejoicing.

Baker is immaculate vocally, but the dramatic intensity of her performance, a prolonged expression of grief and regret until the happy apotheosis, is also remarkable, particularly in the famous "Che faro senza Euridice", filled with emotion yet expressed so gently as to make you weep.

Sopranos Elisabeth Speiser as Euridice and Elizabeth Gale, an Amore permanently suspended on a heavenly cloud, are in fine form, distinct, complementary voices to Baker’s well-rooted mezzo.

The production, recorded for television in 1982, sometimes directly to camera, looks murky in parts, but one can still appreciate Hall’s masterful direction, particularly in handling naturalistic crowd scenes, with the occasional bonus of an irresistible young cherub. If the afterlife is like this, however, spare me the ennui of Elysium and take me to Hell, with its hollow-eyed monsters and a sensational gymnastic ballet of semi-naked devils, one of whom turns a dozen firecracker cartwheels.

Performance and direction make this re-release a classic by which to remember one of the great mezzos. I caught a smile on Dame Janet’s face in the closing scene as she leads a conga-like line of celebrants that suggested something more than the joyful conclusion of the plot. She seemed happy too for this to be her memento to us.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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