Friday 15 August 2014

Gluck - Gluck 300 Years (Blu-ray)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Gluck 300 Years

Alceste - Stuttgart, 2006
Constantinos Carydis, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Catherine Naglestad, Donald Kaasch, Bernard Schneider, Catriona Smith, Johan Rydh, Michael Ebbecke

Iphigénie en Tauride - Zurich, 2001
William Christie, Claus Guth, Juliette Galstian, Rodney Gilfry, Deon van der Walt

Orfeo ed Euridice - Royal Opera House, 1991
Hartmut Haenchen, Harry Kupfer, Jochen Kowalski, Gillian Webster, Jeremy Budd

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

In terms of content, this release is a fine way to celebrate Gluck's 300th anniversary, collecting what are quite simply three of the greatest works of opera ever written. All three operas are key works of Gluck's reform period, the purest examples of the composer's intentions to reduce extravagant ornamentation and bring opera back to its fundamental purpose as a means of dramatic expression. As such they are all derived from classical Greek dramas, mythological in scope but human in sentiments, profound in their meaning and exquisite in their musical arrangements.

Each of the productions differs in terms of musical performance and stage interpretation, but all are faithful to Gluck's vision of the pure music-drama. Orfeo ed Euridice is performed in its original Italian version, Iphigénie en Tauride in its original French version, Alceste in the 1776 French revision. While the quality of the performances is indisputable, the fact that all three operas are contained on one single BD50 Blu-ray disc might give a clue that quality of the video transfers for this release is far from expected High Definition standards.

Alceste - Stuttgart, 2006
There are a few odd touches in the 2006 recording of Stuttgart's full French edition of Alceste (complete with the concluding six-movement orchestral suite by Gossec), but other than the 20th century setting - some kind of combination of funeral parlour, recording studio and meeting house - there's nothing too unusual attempted in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito's production. There's something oratorio-like about Alceste's grand choruses and funeral marches, with individual dramatic expressions of grief, despair and prayers as Alceste sacrifices herself, Apollo having promised that the dying King Admeto will be spared if someone worthy takes his place. That all comes across exceptionally well here.

Despite the lack of typical dramatic action, all the human drama of Alceste is taken to the limits and wrapped up in the music and the singing. The work is given a magnificent account here in the Stuttgart production conducted by Constantinos Carydis, and the singing gives full expression to the trials of human life held to the cruel and unfathomable whim of the Gods. Catherine Naglestad gives a strong, unmannered performance of dramatic intensity as Alceste, Donald Kaasch is a dignified lyrical Admeto. The chorus work is sublime.  

Iphigénie en Tauride - Zurich, 2001
Musically pared back to its pure emotional core, it's debatable whether Iphigénie en Tauride requires any further stage elaboration, but Claus Guth highlights the psychological depth that underlies the trauma of the characters by picking up on the (pre-)Freudian undercurrents, expressing them in dreams where papier-mâché doubles continually re-enact their nightmares and drive their actions. It's evidently not going to be to everyone's taste, but it is an interesting and valid interpretation of the opera's content, and it does indeed bring out - or perhaps overstate - elements that otherwise might pass by unnoticed.

Under William Christie, the orchestration presents the work in a clear, bright, stripped-back arrangement. It's less full bodied than other recordings I have heard, sounding like a chamber orchestra here presumably using period instruments. Both Juliette Galstian as Iphigenia - restrained, clear and with beautiful diction - and Rodney Gilfry as Orestes, take advantage of the spacious arrangements and sing purely, emotively, without needing to dramatically overstate.

Orfeo ed Euridice - Royal Opera House, 1991
The Royal Opera House's 1991 production of Orfeo ed Euridice from 1991 still stands up pretty well musically and it manages to reveal the aching beauty of the opera, but there are some curious staging elements in Harry Kupfer's direction that never quite add up to a consistent concept. Although fully staged with attention to mood and situation, the chorus are lined-up in rows in an extended orchestra pit in formal dress, and the singers too on occasion lapse into concert performance mode with the music score open before them as if they are in some kind of mentally abstracted state. Doubles are used and Amor speaks to Orfeo through their young child. The dress is contemporary 1990s casual, Orpheus looking like a pub folk singer, but the journey through Hell after the death if Eurydice is no less real and dramatically intense in this version.

The best thing about the performance is the countertenor Orpheus of Jochen Kowalski. There's a beautiful clarity and strength to his voice that reaches those extremes of Orpheus' mental state with tremendous force of expression. Eurydice is passionately delivered by Gillian Webster and Amor is enchantingly sung by Jeremy Budd. Hartmut Haenchen conducts a well-balanced version of the original 1762 Italian version of Orfeo ed Eurydice.

There are some terrific performances here of these great Gluck masterpieces and I was looking forward to seeing them upgraded to HD, but the transfers on this Blu-ray are very disappointing. Basically, it appears that the old DVD masters have just been transferred across to HD format, with all three operas contained on a single BD50 disc. The image and sound are reasonably good, and certainly acceptable for Standard Definition presentation, but on a large screen or projected, none of these will meet High Definition requirements. The image is soft, the transfer exhibits and perhaps even enhances the familiar flaws found in old video transfers. Alceste and Iphigénie en Tauride are 16:9 widescreen, while Orfeo ed Eurydice is 4:3.  Each performance comes with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

You're actually at a slight disadvantage with the BD release. The DVD version of this collection is a box set that collects each of the operas as individually cased DVDs. For convenience or uniformity, the BD release has PCM stereo on all performances, dropping the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of Iphigénie en Tauride. There is no chapter selection on the Blu-ray, just the option to choose which opera to view, and there is no pop-up menu functionality. You can however find chapter-listings for each of the productions in the enclosed booklet. In addition to the three operas on the Blu-ray there is a "bonus" in the form of an hour-long film "Winds of Change, Winds of Love" by Inger Aby, a dramatised meeting between Gluck and his student Salieri, where the elder master advises on how success in Paris is as capricious and unpredictable as the wind.

It's undoubtedly convenient to have all three operas gathered together on a single BD disc, and the performances of these three great works are all well worth having, but very disappointing that this is not a true High Definition release.