New Gluck productions in Vienna

Gluck was more than just an “opera reformer”. Ahead of the Gluck anniversary year 2014, it is worth taking a look at his opere serie and opéras comiques. Discoveries worth performing are guaranteed.

Christoph Willibald Gluck was long regarded solely as an “opera reformer” by the music world. With his works Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste he gave a new music-dramatic direction to Italian opera, and with operas such as Iphigénie en Aulide, commissioned by the Académie Royale de musique in Paris, he also helped give French music theatre an epoch-making new beginning. These ‘reform’ works correspondingly dominated the stage repertoire as representative of Gluck’s output, although they only constitute part of his oeuvre. The 300th anniversary of Gluck’s birth in 2014 therefore offers a welcome opportunity to explore the new discoveries and rediscoveries made in the last few years, in particular his early works.
Using orchestral materials produced from the editions in the Gluck Complete Edition, Gluck’s opere serie can now be rescued from obscurity and performed following a 250-year gap. In the first two decades of his output, and occasionally later too, Gluck largely concerned himself with this genre, predominant in the 18th century, increasingly freeing it from rigid conventions.
He made his debut as an opera composer in Vienna in 1748 with a setting of Pietro Metastasio’s drama La Semiramide riconosciuta – a story of confusion based on disguise and intrigue, about the legendary Babylonian ruler who at first rules unrecognised in men’s clothes but, after her uncovering by her people, is accepted as queen. Gluck provided tonal variety with stage music for ‘istromenti barbari’, a dance scene and solo instruments, but nevertheless had to accept Metastasio’s verdict that this was “music of unbearable arch vandalism”. Probably the expressive accented leading of the voices in the dramatic scenes and their sudden entry without any orchestral introduction was regarded as unusual. But it may have been the instances where the melodic writing deviated from current Italian taste which mean that Gluck’s setting continues to appear so attractive today.
The same goes for the opera Ezio premiered in the Teatro Nuovo in Prague in 1750: Gluck’s musical realization of the Metastasian story of intrigue about the Roman commander, who is almost brought to his downfall by the Emperor Valentinian’s jealousy, captivates through its precise characterisation of the individual roles and the subtly differentiated portrayal of emotions; in particular, Fulivia’s expressive aria of despair “Ah, non son io che parlo”  has become a much sought-after challenge for mezzo-sopranos. Also with his reworked version of Ezio thirteen years later for the Vienna Burgtheater, Gluck remained to a large extent committed to the seria tradition. But through the use of extended ensembles, additional accompagnati and a stronger integration of the Sinfonia into the beginning of the plot, he ensured an intensification of the dramatic urgency, appearing to test the boundaries of the genre with this. In addition, the instrumentation of the Vienna Ezio was enriched by the addition of flutes, solo bassoon, trumpets and timpani.

Even more firmly located between tradition and progress is the 1765 opera Il Telemaco ossia L’isola di Circe after a text by Marco Coltellini. This takes as its subject Telemachus’s search for his missing father and their meeting on the island of the sorceress Circe, together with her despair faced with the threatened loss of the beloved Odysseus. Indeed, this commission for the Viennese court still contains conventional seria elements as well as schematically structured secco recitatives and da capo arias, but alongside this, large-scale scenic structures with action choruses and integrated dance scenes open up the rigid principles of the genre. And it seems to be the varied juxtaposition of action-packed sections and lyrical passages which constitutes the charm of the hybrid work.

Parallel with Gluck’s seria works and the beginning of the reform efforts ran his involvement with the Opéra comique, which reached a temporary high point with La Rencontre imprévue in 1764. Under the title Die unvermuthete Zusammenkunft oder Die Pilgrime von Mekka the work was given in 1780 in a separate German Singspiel version in the Vienna Burgtheater. The surviving original performance score was published by Josef-Horst Lederer in 2008, with the result that alongside Gluck’s music, characterised by Turkish colour, the situation comedy of the plot in particular can now also be experienced in a German-language version.

Tanja Gölz
(aus t]akte 2/2012)
(from [t]akte 2/2012)