Gluck by Bampton Classical Opera

concert performances of two little-known ‘pre-reform’ works by
Gluck — La danza (1755) and Le cinesi (1754) — on
the small stage at the Wigmore Hall certainly confirmed the company’s
commitment to undeservedly neglected works of the early classical period, and
consistently high musical standards served to convince the audience of the
merit and beauty of these unfamiliar treasures.

Before he had the good fortune, at almost 50 years-of-age, to become
acquainted with the group of ‘reformers’ gathered at the Viennese
court — theatre Intendant, Count Durazzo; poet, Raniero de
Calzabigi; choreographer, Angiolini; and designer, Quaglio — Gluck was a
moderately successful composer of Metastasian opera seria. His
reputation today derives largely from his status as ‘reformer’
— as exemplified by his later, innovative, operas, Orfeo ed
, Alceste and the two stories of IphigÈnie.

The Preface to Alceste (1767) set forth the new operatic creed.
Gluck professed his desire to diminish the pre-eminence of the voice as a
virtuoso solo instrument, to create greater continuity of design, and to unite
the dramatic action with the emotional expression of the musical score.
However, as the esteemed musicologist Winton Dean has remarked, ‘[t]here
never was a “reformer” so little in advance of his age and so
perfectly adapted to swimming with the current rather than against it’.
Gluck certainly had no inherent distaste for the traditional Italian vocal
style. For more than twenty-years he had been purveying ‘old-style’
opera seria in the courts of Europe, and indeed he did not abandon the
genre after the success of Orfeo (1762), going on to set three more
libretti by Metastasio in the 1760s. But, while he may not have been a radical,
preferring to ‘lead from behind’, Gluck clearly recognised a good
opportunity when he saw one — and it is this practical awareness of
musical and dramatic context, coupled with the ability to maximise his own
skills, which is equally evident in these two ‘pre-reform’ works.
Like his later operas, they are both characterised by a supreme feeling for
melody, a sure sense of balance, and by a keen ear for instrumental colour and

La danza is typical of Gluck’s operas in that it presents a
mythological situation as a vehicle for making general declarations about human
nature. Composed in 1755 for the birthday of the future Emperor Leopold II, it
presents a conversation between the delightful nymph, Nice, who is required to
dance at a forthcoming festival, and her beloved, the shepherd, Tirsi, who
fears that her beauty will undoubtedly attract other suitors and lead
inevitably to her infidelity. In a sequence of alternating arias, the lovers
— whose romance must, for reasons not disclosed, be kept secret —
discourse on love and jealousy, fear and betrayal, honesty and faithfulness,
closing with a rather inconclusive duet (repeated, perhaps to lend greater
conviction to its sentiments …) in which they both declare, ‘I was
born to yearn — for you alone’ (‘Per te sola … io son
nato a sospirar’).

Originally described as a componimento drammatico pastorale, this
short work is in fact distinctly lacking in dramatic development or momentum;
but, nevertheless, the debate between the suspicious shepherd and the
self-composed nymph ranges through various emotional and human dilemmas, and
the lyricism and sincerity of the vocal lines is enhanced by an array of
instrumental colours and textures – the cor anglais, oboes and horns which
suggest Tirsi’s anxiety and forthrightness in the opening aria, giving
way to gentle string colours, tinted by the bassoon, to complement Nice’s
protestation of fidelity and steadfastness. The Bampton Classical Players,
performing on period instruments and led from the harpsichord by Christian
Curnyn, provided sensitive and alert support throughout; while the instrumental
parts lack contrapuntal interest, the context does not in fact require it, and
colour and timbre introduce a dramatic element.

Bampton_MG_7737.gifSerena Kay (Tangia); Martene Grimson (Sivene); Lina Markeby (Lisinga) [Photo © Anthony Hall]

The two principals, Martene Grimson (Nice) and Nicholas Sharratt (Tirsi),
proved themselves equally adept at attaining the ‘beautiful
simplicity’ which Gluck declared to be his aspiration. Sharratt’s
rich, warm, lower register suitably conveyed the shepherd’s earnestness
and concern, and he skilfully applied appropriate nuance to particular textual
phrases to add weight and dimension to the sketched character. While her
articulation of the Italian text was less precise, Grimson confidently tackled
a virtuosic part; at the top of her range her voice has an impressive accuracy,
clarity and attack, which she employed to convey the nymph’s insistent
assertions of her honesty and dependability, and she nimbly despatched the
rapid passage work.

Despite the fact that the work is in essence a simple cantata, it was
perhaps a shame that the two soloists preferred to sing directly to the
audience, rather than to each other, Grimson remaining quite self-contained
even in the final duet. The two music-stands, isolated to the right and left of
the conductor, exacerbated the absence of dramatic engagement, which was a pity
since the gentle, tender interchanges between the two characters were serenely
and affectively sung.

There was more dramatic vitality post-interval in Le Cinesi,
composed by Gluck for a festival in 1754. In that year, Empress Maria Theresa
had appointed Gluck opera Kapellmeister to the court theatre in
Vienna, a post which required him to compose in the livelier, more flexible
style of the fashionable French opÈras comiques. The composer put his
familiarity with various operatic styles and conventions to good use in this
opera — a forerunner in the genre of ‘opera about opera’. The
scenario is trivial but charming and concise. Three ‘Chinese’
ladies, wile away a tedious evening, confined to the women’s quarters,
when they are surprisingly joined by an illicit male interloper from Europe. As
romantic attractions begin to surface, they determine to pass the time by
play-acting, each of the ladies selecting a different genre — seria,
and buffa. The lone make, Silango, is charged with
judging the various merits of the contrasting styles, and their performers.
After much melodramatic self-advertisement, flirtatious coquetry and jealous
sniping, Silango tactfully suggests that the ladies should abandon their
dramatic aspirations and put all their energies into dancing.

First performed in 2008, this production was recently revived at the 2009
Cheltenham festival, and the four soloists slipped quickly and effectively into
their roles. Metastasio is not known for his sense of humour — indeed,
this is his only ‘comic’ libretto; but the singers made much of the
potential for caricature and irony, although some of the anachronisms of Murray
Hipkin’s new translation were a little grating. Lina Markeby conveyed the
moral self-righteousness and pomposity of the haughty Lisinga to great effect;
Tom Raskin was a raffish Silango, suave and confident; while Serena Kay pouted
and preened as the feisty Tangia, envious of Silango’s regard for the
serene beauty of Sivene (Martene Grimson). The demands, technical and musical,
of the long da capo arias, delivered by each principal in turn, are
not inconsiderable, but they presented few obstacles to these performers, and
Christian Curnyn effectively ensured that dramatic pace and momentum were
sustained. Grimson was perhaps feeling the effects of having to perform two
demanding roles in one evening for, while she rose to the challenges at the
climax of her aria, some of her passage work was a little ragged, with
intonation and rhythmic accuracy less than secure. But, overall, the sense of
genuine enjoyment and engagement which all the soloists conveyed made one long
to see the fully staged production revived once more.

Once again, a performance by Bampton Classical Opera left this listener
amazed that such works are not more frequently performed, and convinced that
there must be a wealth of unfamiliar repertoire from the late-eighteenth and
early-nineteenth centuries that deserves to be resurrected and celebrated
— certainly when historical integrity and musical standards are as high
as this.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Tom Raskin (Silango); Martene Grimson (Sivene) [Photo © Anthony Hall]
product_title=C.W. Gluck: La danza and Le Cinesi
product_by=La danza: Martene Grimson (Nice); Nicholas Sharratt (Tirsi).
Le cinesi: Martene Grimson (Sivene); Serena Kay (Tangia); Lina Markeby (Lisinga); Tom Raskin (Silango). Bampton Classical Opera. Conductor: Christian Curnyn.
product_id=Above: Tom Raskin (Silango); Martene Grimson (Sivene) [Photo © Anthony Hall]