Stage & Scene | The Pursuit of Dramatic Truth | Classical Era | Opera
Two crucial figures in Gluck’s operatic career were the controller of the Viennese theatres Count Durazzo and the Francophile poet and librettist Raniero de’ Calzabigi. Both were intent on the reform and revitalization of Italian opera. In Gluck they found their perfect musical collaborator.
Some of Gluck’s Italian stage works had already begun to integrate solos and chorus, but it was in his three Italian ‘reform’ operas – Orfeo, Alceste and Paride ed Elena – that broke most boldly with tradition. In the famous preface to Alceste, probably co-written with Calzabigi, the composer resolved to divest music of ‘all those abuses, introduced by the misguided vanity of singers or the excessive complaisance of composers that have so long disfigured Italian opera’. The Byzantine plots and sub-plots and ‘useless superfluity of ornaments’ of opera seria were ditched in favour of concentration, classical simplicity and the direct expression of profound emotion.
Gluck could, however, occasionally backslide. The Italian Alceste contains dramatically dispensable roles for two confidants (Evandro and Ismene) and stretches of ‘dry’ recitative, while for the French Orphée he pandered to the ‘misguided vanity’ of the star tenor, Joseph Legros, and gave him a brilliant coloratura showpiece to end the first act.
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