Unfamiliar Gluck Operas Revived and Performed with Utmost Care by The Mozartists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gluck: Soloists, The Mozartists / Ian Page (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 31.5.2019. (CC)

Lena Belkina (Orfeo) (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Le Feste d’Apollo

Bauci e Filemone
Bauci – Rebecca Bottone
Filemone – Lena Belkina
Goive – Gwilym Bowen
La Pastorella – Kiandra Howarth

Orfeo (1679 version, UK premiere).
Orfeo – Lena Belkina
Euridice – Kiandra Howarth
Amore – Rebecca Bottone
Actors – Luke Elliott, Nadi Kemp-Sayli, Dominyka Markvėnaitė

Director – John Wilkie

What a joy to hear a little-known Gluck opera paired with an unfamiliar, pared-down (70-minute) version of Orfeo, the latter receiving its UK premiere. Both operas, in fact, formed part of Le Feste d’Apollo, and were composed for celebrations around the wedding of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma to the Austrian Archduchess Maria Amalia – they were joined by Gluck’s Aristeo: Christophe Rousset has memorably paired Aristeo and Bauci on disc (review). The premiere of Feste took place in the Teatrino della Corte, Parma, on August 24, 1769. Both operas on display at this event, too, share their origins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The QEH performances formed part of MOZART 250, as Page feels that the premiere of Gluck’s original Orfeo in Vienna marked the beginning of Mozart’s journey as an operatic composer.

The 50-minute Bauci et Filemone offers music of the utmost charm; witness the female-voice duet ‘Mio tesor, che bel concerto’ for Bauci and Filemone that opens the work. There is, admittedly, the risk of drowning in such charm over the course of nearly an hour. Director John Wilkie used minimal stagecraft to conjure up the pastoral atmosphere (a screen for projections – one of which for some reason reminded me of the tam-tam in Stockhausen’s Kontakte – some trees and, later, some step ladders and a lyre that frankly looked as if it came from a 99p shop).

The plot of Bauci e Filemone is simple to sum up: Jupiter appears in disguise as a poor pilgrim and suffers rejection from the majority of humans. Only Baucis and Filemone give him food and lodging, for which he gives Baucis a lyre – so there’s a nice link to Orfeo, too – with which Baucis, unaware of the stranger’s identity, promises to praise Jupiter. As a reward, the pair become guardians of a temple to Jupiter with the promise of demigod (and demigoddess) status at their passing.

Three protagonists of Bauci were clad in various shades of gray, with Kiandra Howarth’s shepherdess in white. The band was at the back of the stage, which meant, as previously on occasions such as this, Page had his back to the singers, which led, in the first opera, to several clumsy ensemble moments between soloists and orchestra. That said, the performance standard was high. Lena Belkina was a marvellously eloquent Filemone (the aria ‘La fiamma del mio petto’ beautifully legato and eloquent). The stratospheric demands of Bauci’s part (we can hear something of Mozart’s forthcoming Queen of the Night in the splendidly canary-like shenanigans of the work’s major show aria, ‘Il mio pastor tu sei’) were brilliantly negotiated by Rebecca Bottone. The original soprano for which the part was written, Lucrezia Agujari, could apparently sing the ‘C’ above soprano top C. The smaller role of the Shepherdess was well taken by Kiandra Howarth.

Gwilym Bowen, who has impressed previously (in Acis and Fairy Queen) was a strong Giove (Jupiter), his aria ‘Il mio Nume’ gentle in phrasing, Gluck’s deliciously pared-down scoring a delight; his later ‘Pe’ gravi torti meiei’ at the opposing extreme, strong and virile. Jupiter gets the most dramatic music, including a thunderstorm, but the glory of this performance was the choral contributions of The Mozartists’ Choir, simply superbly balanced at all times and glorious of sound.

My last Orfeo was Gluck’s full version at the Royal Opera House with Juan Diego Flórez and Lucy Crowe (review). Here is the 70-mnute reduction, complete with stepladders. There’s little need to introduce the plot, or to pretend that any revelation of the ending could be a spoiler. A tunic-clad Belkina (Orfeo) and a sleekly clad Kiandra Howarth as Eurydice (think a Grecian urn in human form) shared the stage with a be-winged Amore from Rebecca Bottone. Journeyings here occurred up and down stepladders. Three dancers/actors acted as spirits/furies. The orchestra was fabulously responsive to the dramatic situations, Ian Page’s undemonstrative conducting guiding all surely through the score, the chorus once more spectacular (the chorus ‘Chi mai dell’Erebo fra le caligini’ fabulously dynamic).

Kiandra Howarth took things up a gear for Euridice, wringing all she could from the part, while Bottone was vocally spellbinding as Amore. Page favoured fairly rapid speeds – both the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ and ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ were despatched at some lick, Belkina remaining eloquent in the latter.

This was an interesting evening, perhaps with an overload of charm in Bauci. Once more Ian Page and his singers and instrumentalists seek out and present lesser-known works in performances of the utmost care.

Colin Clarke

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