A New Recording of Bertoni’s Copycat Orfeo

Bertoni Orfeo

Bertoni: Orfeo ed Euridice / Vivica Genaux, mezzo (Orfeo); Francesca Lombardi-Mazzulli, soprano (Euridice); Jan Petryka, tenor (Imeneo); Coro Accademia di Santo Spirito, Ferrara, dir. Francesco Pinamonti; Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte, cond. Roberto Zarpellon / Fra Bernardo Limited Edition FB1601729 (live performance: Ferrara, 2/15/2014)

I promised myself that I would avoid writing negative CD or DVD reviews on this site—after all, I’m not required to review things I don’t like anymore—but in this case I opted to take the plunge because the music is very good, as is some of the singing. What ruins it is the stupid, misguided, and completely non-authentic “historically informed” orchestra and chorus B.S. (See my article tearing apart the HIP movement here.)

Ferdinando Bertoni (1725-1813) was an Italian composer fond of the opera seria style that just preceded and initially influenced his great contemporary Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787). And, of course, any student of opera knows that Orfeo ed Euridice was Gluck’s “breakthrough” opera (1762), the work in which he first pushed aside some of the conventions of opera seria and began writing in a new strophic style, with stabbing strings and biting choral interjections, that he later developed more fully in Armide, Alceste and the Iphigenie operas. But Bertoni, whose own Orfeo followed in 1776, borrowed some of the same style and technique of Gluck’s music (in fact, it was based on the same libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi that Gluck used, and Bertoni admitted that he had Gluck’s score in front of him while writing this opera) but stuck closer to the opera seria style, which meant more arias in the stand-there-and-sing style that Gluck was endeavoring to get away from. Interestingly, Bertoni’s Orfeo was written at the request of Gluck’s original Orfeo, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni.

The end result, as one can hear, was a work that in many respects sounded like Gluck—the mezzo-with-choral-interjections that opens Bertoni’s Act 2 sounds remarkably similar to the opening of Gluck’s Act 1, and there are several other passages that sound like music that Gluck might have cut out of his Orfeo score, particularly another choral passage that resembles Gluck’s chorus of the furies—and that, despite the occasional aria that doesn’t seem to fit, makes the work vital and interesting. One point of interest here is that Orfeo’s aria “Che puro ciel” was inserted into the 1960s recording of the Gluck Orfeo with Marilyn Horne and Georg Solti.

I will concede that Zarpellon’s brisk tempos generate some excitement, but good God…that freaking straight-toned orchestra absolutely ruins everything. Thin, whiny, and inhuman sounding, the strings snivel and mewl their way through the score like sick kittens. This is in stark contrast to our two lead singers, who have strong vibratos (tenor Jan Petryka, unfortunately, also sounds like a sick kitten), and neither the singing nor the playing is helped by the awful acoustic. Recorded in live performance at the Teatro Comunale di Ferrara, there is a bizarre sort of reverb that distorts the voices of Genaux and Lombardi-Mazzulli to the point where they grate on the ear like the aural equivalent of Brillo pads. Moreover, the chorus sounds not only thin but amateurish, since some of the voices are recorded too forward and lack a really fine blend.

Sometimes you really wonder if these HIP performers realize how much havoc they are wreaking on music and making it not only unpleasant to hear but actually disgusting. And this is a case where, with a little concession to string vibrato and a less choppy style (a bit more legato would have done wonders), this might actually have been a valuable recording. Scimone OrfeoAs it is, I can’t recommend it over the mid-1990s recording on Arts Music with Delores Ziegler (Orfeo), Cecilia Gasdia (Euridice) and Bruce Ford (Imeneo) with the Solisti Veneti—a sort of mid-period HIP orchestra, not as whiny-sounding as the Ensemble Lorenzo da Ponte—conducted by Claudio Scimone, who actually, really uses legato phrasing. In addition, Ziegler presents us with a real, complex character, not just a nice singing job—although sheerly in terms of singing, she has it all over Genaux. Her voice is richer, her tone coloring vastly superior, and she sings the trills that Genaux simply skips over. (The presence of the great Bruce Ford as Imeneo speaks for itself…here was a master tenor in a nice piece of luxury casting for a throwaway role.) Even the little bridge passages for the strings sound better in Scimone’s version, and overall the opera just sounds more Italian, if you know what I mean. This new recording is, quite simply, wrong-headed in execution and hard to listen to, a real disaster.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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