Bertoni: Orfeo ed Euridice

Vivica Genaux Orfeo, Francesca Lonbardi-Mazzulli Euridice, Jan Petryka Imeneo, Accademia di Santo Spirito di Ferrara, Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte, Roberto Zarpellon
70:00
Fra Bernardo fb 1601729

In an era when pastiche had few of the dubious undertones it has today, the emulation of popularity was widespread. As one of the most successful operas of its day, the Orfeo ed Euridice  of Gluck and Calzabigi received widespread attention from other composers, including J. C. Bach, whose pasticcio version was given when the opera was performed in London in 1770. The castrato Gaetano Guadagni, the creator of the role of Orfeo, himself composed several replacements, including ‘Che puro ciel’. New operas set to Calzabigi’s famous ‘reform’ libretto include those by Antonio Tozzi, whose version was given in Munich in 1775 and Ferdinando Bertoni, whose Orfeo ed Euridice  for Teatro S Bernadino in Venice received its premiere in January the following year. The Orfeo in both was none other than Guadagni, who would subsequently enjoy considerable success in the Bertoni role in various European centres.

In the preface to his edition, which unusually for this period was published before the first performance, Bertoni acknowledges the daunting task he has taken on. His answer was to emulate closely the setting of Gluck, as any listener familiar with Gluck’s masterpiece will immediately recognise. Indeed there are times – the chorus in act 2’s infernal scene is an example – where Bertoni comes dangerously close to plagiarism. With the exception of a change in name of the deus ex machina  from Amore to Imeneo and a few cosmetic textural changes, Calzabigi’s libretto is that as set by Gluck, as is the ‘reform’ structure of the piece, with its closely linked alternation of accompanied recitative, aria and dance. The result is an opera that has validity in its own right – much of Bertoni’s music owns to a felicitous melodic grace – but that ultimately lacks the overwhelming tragic intensity and classical nobility of its model. It is interesting that despite the success of his Orfeo, Bertoni never again experimented with ‘reform’ opera.

The present issue is taken from a live performance given in February 2014 at the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara. In general it is highly commendable, with strongly delineated direction and playing by the period instrument band, which if not the most polished of ensembles plays with verve and style. Vivica Genaux is an excellent Orfeo, singing throughout with conviction and power, her chest notes richly burnished. Genaux’s vocal acting is outstanding too, and she not only makes much of the dramatic recitatives, but is also touchingly vulnerable in the exchanges with her Euridice. That role is also sung with real authority by soprano Francesca Lombardi-Mazzulli, though the tone becomes undisciplined at times in her aria di furia  ‘Che fiero’, a rare example of conventional coloratura. Tenor Jan Petryka is a good Imeneo, singing his single (and rather conventional) aria ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ with pleasing style.

Not for the first time in my experience with Fra Bernadino, the presentation is poor. The note is good, but only the Italian libretto is printed and that in a way in which the text often does not make syntactical sense; indeed there are places where it is downright misleading. For example, before listening I compared the text with that of the Gluck, coming to the conclusion that Bertoni had not set Orfeo’s anguished cries of ‘Euridice!’ that punctuate the opening chorus. In fact they are there, but FB have been too lazy to ensure the libretto is correctly printed. If you have a version of the Gluck, use the libretto for that. Notwithstanding caveats, the interest of this ‘other Orfeo’ and a very good performance make the CD well worth exploring.

Brian Robins