Opera album review: up there with Handel and Vivaldi – One of Gluck’s first operas, in his very first recording

Opera singer

By Ralph P Locke

This world premiere recording of Gluck Demofonte is performed in style, under the experienced hand (s) of conductor / harpsichordist Alan Curtis.

Christoph Willibald von Gluck: Demofonte

Ann Hallenberg (Princess Creusa), Sylvia Schwartz (Dircea), Romina Basso (Cherinto), Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Timante), Colin Balzer (Demofoonte), Vittorio Prato (Matusio).

Complesso Barocco, keyboarded by Alan Curtis.

Gloss 95283 [3 CDs] 212 minutes. To buy, click here.

I especially forget that Gluck wrote a lot of Italian operas in the style of opera-series of his time, consisting mainly of a long series of da capo tunes (i.e. in ABA form). Rather, music historians have focused on his reform operas from the 1760s and beyond, which often condensed the plot and shattered the boundaries between aria and recitative. The Gluckian reform is familiar to opera enthusiasts today, especially Orfeo and Euridice and the famous preface to Alceste. Gluck’s move from Vienna to Paris (with its highly developed and varied theatrical traditions) pushed him to even more experiences and departures, as in his two operas of Iphigénie.

So it was with surprise that I started to listen, a little blind, Demofonte, only to discover that the work is cut in more or less the same fabric as the high baroque opera series by Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Hasse and Vinci that I reviewed for The fuse of the arts and in Guide to American Records during the last years. Which means we encounter one largely precious aria after another, full of sweetness (as in the lapping waves of Timante’s delicate first aria, “Sperai vicino al lido”) or vigor (as in “Odo il suono de ‘queruli accenti “of the main character”, with its marvelous intrusions of pairs of horns and oboes).

This is not a surprise, because, as I learned when I interrupted my listening to read the informative essay book by famous musicologist Paologiovanni Maione, and then did a few more readings, Demofonte was one of the first of some sixteen operas that Gluck wrote between 1741 and 1752 for theaters in Italy, Vienna, Prague and London, and the first that has been widely preserved. (Surviving sources lack the overture and recitatives; these were all composed for the 2014 production we hear on this recording by its conductor, Alan Curtis. The recording is available on Spotify and other services. The start of each song can be heard here.)

The great librettist Metastasio wrote Demofonte in Vienna, where it was put together by Caldara on behalf of Emperor Charles VI in 1733. It was put more often than all but three of Metastasio’s dozens of librettos. Niccolo Jommelli posed it more than once! Cherubini would, decades later, set up a French adaptation that larded the well-filled tale with another subplot.

Gluck’s staging, for Milan (first performances: January 1743), was greeted with “great satisfaction and applause from the many spectators who attended it each evening” (according to the Gazzetta di Milano). Praise has been given to the great castrato Giovanni Carestini, in the role of Timante, a man appointed to marry Creusa (Princess of Phrygia) but secretly married to Dircea. Indeed, the musical inspiration and craftsmanship is so high throughout this work that I was delighted to continue to listen (and to put off other less pleasant tasks!). I was particularly delighted by the duet for Timante and Dircea which ends act 2. (The tracklist here first gives the name of the character who actually enters second. Such a mistake is all the more annoying. , given that all but two of the cast members sing in the soprano or viola scale and can therefore be easily mistaken by ear.)

The late Alan Curtis, conductor. Photo: Limelight Magazine.

The singers are all remarkably good (like the Complesso Barocco with a pointed profile and two dozen strong). My only complaint is that the countertenor, a singer with a seductive and mellow tone, is often weak on his lower notes, his trill is soggy, and Curtis’ fast tempos stress him out in certain passages of coloratura (such as in the mid section of its first aria). Carestini surely had more fire. But I don’t want to complain too much: the countertenor in question, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, was only 20 years old and a Princeton student when this recording was made, and already quite astute and intelligent. Three years later he would win the National Auditions of the Metropolitan Opera and be hailed in the New York Times as a “complete artist” with “a remarkable gift for intimate communication”. A more mature ANC – that’s the colophon on his website – can be heard as David in Handel’s 2019 recording of Nicholas McGegan Saul (available in streaming or download) and in a CD of tunes by Handel, Vivaldi and Gluck. (For more details, see the ANC website.) Still, I’d love to hear that role – the job primo uomo – sung by a singer whose range comfortably matched the game.

I complained a bit about Vittorio Prato’s low register and huffy coloratura in my Bellini review Bianca and Gernando. Here he seems more at ease. Colin Balzer is a charming lyric tenor, best known for his recordings of German artistic songs. He does a good job with the often placid title role of the King of Thrace. The leaders of baroque operas tend to be noble and generous, therefore less lively than various of their intriguing, hyperactive or suffering subjects. Fortunately, Demofoonte has the opportunity to rage aloud several times, as in his “Perfidi!” Già che in vita. Balzer’s healthy vocal production sets the sparks flying.

Illustration of a scene from Demofonte, from an English translation of the libretto for Metastasio by John Hoole (published 1767). Photo: Wiki Common.

Best of all are the ladies: Ann Hallenberg (from Sweden), Sylvia Schwartz (from Spain) and Romina Basso (from Italy). I don’t recall hearing more expert early music chants: each maintains a solid core of tone while giving appropriate weight to the message of the words. Air after air, I had the impression of attending a master class of intelligent and multifaceted lyrical interpretation. I was particularly impressed by the embellishments eloquently delivered by Romina Basso in Cherinto’s “Nel tuo dono io veggo assai”.

So we can finally hear Gluck’s Demofonte and revel in his energy and grace, in a generally superlative performance, one of the last efforts of keyboardist and conductor Alan Curtis before his death in 2015. The recording was made in the studio, after a concert in Vienna with most of the same singers. Everything can be heard clearly, in a beautiful balance.

It is unfortunate that Curtis did not live to oversee the (late) release of the recording. He reportedly ensured that the booklet, available online, was published in parallel columns, instead of dozens of pages in English followed by dozens of pages in Italian. Who makes these decisions at the misnamed Brilliant record company?

Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Excellence in Writing to Music. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and the exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in pocket size; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to Guide to American Records and online art magazines New York arts, Opera today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have been published in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the programs of major opera houses, for example, Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). This review first appeared in Guide to American Records and appears here courtesy.