The story of Orpheus and Eurydice -“ a young love tragically cut short, a treacherous journey to Hades to wake the dead, a test failed, a second loss and then the unexpected miraculous triumph of love -“ has inspired many operas. Monteverdi’s Orfeo is regarded by scholars as the first, still extant, opera and this tradition has carried right through to recent times with Philip Glass’s 1994 opera based on Jean Cocteau’s film version of the Orpheus story.
Two recent CDs bring us stunning new renditions of the two best-loved Orpheus operas. The rising star of the period-performance world Emmanuelle Haim (recently named by classical music bible Gramophone as one of the 10 artists who will define the future of classical music) has produced a blistering version of Monteverdi’s Orfeo; and established period maestro Marc Minkowski has given us a unique new recording of Gluck’s Orph?
You know you are in for something really special right from the sounding of the mighty first notes in Haim’s Orfeo: the unique sound of the cornets and sackbuts (a proto-trombone) underlaid by the insistent rhythms of drumming suddenly breaks into the lyrical sound of strings and continuo. By the time Natalie Dessay has sung the first aria with her unmistakable mixture of strength, passion and honeyed clarity you realise there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. The singing is wonderful but what makes this a must-have recording is the sprightly crisp direction of Haim and the sparkling playing of her ensemble Le Concert D’Astree.
Gluck’s Orph?was first produced in Italian but was then substantially revised and extended by Gluck in a French version. Gluck originally composed the lead in the Italian version for the male counter tenor voice but in the French version he wrote the role for a haute-contre or high tenor voice, which was then popular for heroic roles in French opera.
Recordings of the original French tenor version are rare and Minkowski gives us what will undoubtedly become the benchmark recording of this version. For the lead role he has used American Richard Croft whose delicious voice conveys the magic and longing of the role perfectly. Croft is complemented by brilliant Minkowski regular Mireille Delunsch as Eurydice and talented newcomer (only 17 at the time of this recording) Marion Harousseau. This is a magnificently sung, dramatic rendition of this work that is at times achingly beautiful.