Magazine article The Spectator

The Genius of Gluck

Magazine article The Spectator

The Genius of Gluck

Article excerpt

This is the first of my more-or-less monthly columns, the idea of which is to report on operatic events other than those that take place at the two major London venues, with occasional trips to those areas (i.e., everywhere other than London) where the annual government grant for the arts is £4.80 per head, while in London it is £69.00. This fact was widely reported a few weeks ago, but while I thought for an hour or two that it might lead to a revolution, there was no widespread articulate reaction to it of any kind, nor, so far as I know, any indication that this gross inequity would be addressed. So if conspicuous consumption is what you're after, you'll know where you have to be.

That's not my main topic for this particular column, however. What I want to do is say something about the two operatic composers who have major anniversaries this year, one of whom I feel is grotesquely overestimated, the other, conveniently, shockingly underestimated. Peter Phillips mentioned them both in his article last week, saying that Richard Strauss is 'the only big name' this year, having been born in 1860; while Phillips categorised as 'second-rate' Gluck, who was born in 1714.

To take Gluck first, it has been perhaps the major disappointment of my years as a reviewer that there have been so few productions of Gluck's major operas: the two Iphigenies, Alceste, Orfeo ed Eurydice and its French version, Armide and Paride ed Elena, at the very least. I don't see how you can possibly call these works second-rate, though they may not be as great as Mozart's near-contemporaneous five masterpieces.

The only one I went to an adequate, indeed revelatory performance of was Paride ed Elena, and that was in concert at the Barbican under Paul McCreesh in 2003. I see from the cover of the DG recording that was made of it that I described it as 'a milestone in our understanding of Gluck's genius', but though that's a judgment I certainly stand by, I don't think any productions or performances of this wonderful work have been forthcoming. Iphigenie en Tauride, Gluck's greatest work, has only had a silly semi-danced production at Covent Garden, in which Simon Keenlyside as Oreste was tossed around by the chorus, and the tense drama disappeared; and so on. These relatively brief, tightly constructed works, with their unique line in nobility (not used as synonymous with boredom) and pathos, and their high drama, need straightforward productions and austere, intense musical performances and it's hard to see that they won't finally get back into the centre of the repertoire where they belong. …

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