Gluck’s “Hidden Opera”…by Salieri

Les Danaides

SALIERI: Les Danaïdes / Margaret Marshall, sop (Hypermnestre); Dimitri Kavrakos, bass (Danaüs); Raul Giménez, ten (Lyncée); Clarry Bartha, sop (Plancippe); Andrea Martin, bar (Pélagus/1st Officer); Enrico Cossutta, ten (2nd & 3rd Officer); Südfunk-Chor; Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart; Gianluigi Gelmetti, cond / EMI Classics 123202

While reading Vol. 1 of David Cairns’ great biography of Berlioz, I kept running across this opera, which so impressed the young composer-to-be that he went to see performances of it every chance he could and was deeply moved. This surprised me, as I had never heard any Salieri opera that I really found impressive in any way, particularly the serious works—until I learned, on Wikipedia, that Christoph Willibald von Gluck, one of Berlioz’ musical gods, was partly responsible for the music.

The story goes like this. In 1779, Gluck’s opera Écho et Narcisse bombed big in Paris, leaving the famous composer red-faced and ashamed, particularly after the success of his rival Piccinni’s opera Iphégenie en Tauride, a subject that Gluck himself had done, in 1781. Gluck fled back to Vienna, intending at first to retire from music altogether, but in 1783 he was presented with a libretto for Les Danaïdes. The subject, about two rival kings (and twin brothers) who each have 50 children—Ægyptus 50 sons, Danaus 50 daughters—who ostensibly make peace by having these offspring wed to each other, but Danaus secretly orders his daughters to kill all the sons on their wedding night of whom only one, Hypermnestra, defies him—immediately appealed to him.

But this is where we get divergent stories about how the opera was handed over to Antonio Salieri to write. According to Benoit Dratwicki, writing the liner notes for the Bru Zane recording of this work, claims that:

Gluck accepted the libretto translated by Du Roullet and Tschudi, but immediately entrusted the composition to his student (also living in Vienna), Antonio Salieri. No doubt aided by Gluck’s advice on what did or did not appeal to French audiences, the latter completed the work quickly, but did not present it to the directors of the Académie Royale de Musique under his own name. Gluck was far too familiar with the music world in Paris and its factions, its pitfalls, to leave Salieri to face alone a public that was so hard to please. To facilitate the reception of Les Danaïdes, he declared that he himself was the principal author of the music, written with the collaboration of his student. That at least was how the opera was announced in the press prior to the première.

Only after the work’s success had been confirmed did Gluck admit to the deception, and by then it was too late for the public to call into question Salieri’s talent. Thus he became the new darling of Parisian opera circles and of the French court – having, of course, dedicated Les Danaïdes to Marie-Antoinette. Only after the sixth performance was it announced (in the Journal de Paris) that Salieri was the sole author of the music. This play of disinformation enabled the work to make an immediate and permanent place for itself in the repertoire of the Académie Royale de Musique, where it was revived until 1828.

Tony Salieri, in a painting by Mahler

Tony Salieri, in a painting by Mahler

Now, this account seems pretty straightforward, but it is open to several questions. Other than promoting Salieri’s career, why would Gluck allow his pupil to write the whole score when it was he himself who wanted to benefit from a “hit” opera to climax his return to Paris? And, considering how much of the score really does sound like Gluck, just how much did the older master really write? Dratwicki points to two other Gluck-like operas by Salieri, Les Horaces (Oath of the Horatii, 1786) and Tarare (1787), but I’ve heard the former (which I will review soon) and the music here is not so much Gluck-like as more looking forward to such works as Cherubini’s Medea. So either Gluck was lying when he said that Salieri wrote every note of Danaïdes or Salieri was simply able to channel his teacher much better in this work than in the other two.

Yet there is a very different account of what happened on the Wikipedia page devoted to this opera:

Calzabigi originally wrote the libretto of Les Danaïdes for Christoph Willibald Gluck, but the aged composer, who had just experienced a stroke, was unable to meet the Opéra’s schedule and so asked Salieri to take it over.

Emperor Joseph II assured that Salieri wrote the music “almost under the dictée of Gluck,” in a letter (dated 31 March 1783) to Count Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian ambassador in Paris. Then Mercy told the directors of the Opéra that Gluck had composed the first two acts, and Salieri supplied the third act’s music (Mercy did not realize the opera was in five acts). Even when the libretto was published, Gluck and Salieri shared billing as the composers.

Though flattered, Gluck was not foolish enough to risk too close an association with young Salieri’s work and diplomatically informed the press: “The music of Danaïdes is completely by Salieri, my only part in it having been to make suggestions which he willingly accepted.” Gluck, who had been devastated by the failure of his last Paris opera, Écho et Narcisse, was concerned that Les Danaïdes would suffer a similar fate. He wrote to Roullet the same day that the opera premiered, crediting Salieri with the entire work, and the press noted this confession.

Note that the Emperor Joseph stated that Salieri wrote the music “ALMOST under the dictée of Gluck,” indicating that it was known to him before the premiere that Salieri wrote a good amount of the score and not that Gluck wrote it all, as stated in the other account. Note also that this account states that Gluck informed the press that the music was not his not because he wanted to promote Salieri but because he didn’t want to risk that close of an association with a young composer—also, that long after Gluck supposedly “spilled the beans,” the libretto was published showing Salieri and Gluck as co-composers.

score front cover

Original cover of Les Danaides, showing Salieri and Gluck as co-composers.

Also please note that Les Horaces was a complete and utter failure, with the first-night audience actually laughing at this dramatic opera. Granted, it was probably the weak and ineffectual libretto that convulsed them, not the music, which does have a few surprisingly Gluck-like numbers in it, but apparently Gluck had no further interest in connecting himself with Salieri after the success of Les Danaïdes. I still say that the first version of the story has a bad smell to it. I have never heard of any great and famous composer pulling such shenanigans as are described here, even to promote a protégé. Have you? And please remember, Gluck was someone who did not usually play games with opera management or have much of a sense of humor. If he wanted to slip Salieri over on the Parisians, why not just say that he wrote the opera entirely himself and not as a collaboration? And why not have both their names listed as co-composers, with his own quite naturally coming first?

There are several places in Les Danaïdes where the music is clearly that of Salieri and only Salieri, particularly the several dance-like numbers (of which there are quite a few, which is probably what endeared the opera to the ballet-loving Parisians) which are obviously Italian in style and not German. In these pieces, Salieri’s music resembles that of Spontini who also followed in the footsteps of Gluck. Yet several of the sung recitatives and ensembles, and particularly the arias, sound like nothing else Salieri ever wrote. They sound like Gluck and are most probably written by him, lack of hard evidence notwithstanding.

To a certain extent, Salieri’s opera is not quite as Gluckian as that of Le Sueur’s Paul et Virginie—or, to be more specific, not as much like the late-period Gluck of Armide as Le Sueur, who was much more harmonically daring. It is more like a hybrid between Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigénie en Tauride, more melodic than the second but much more dramatic than the first. In some of the linking orchestral and choral passages, too, the music looks forward to Spontini…as I said, very Italian though still in the Gluckian style.

Yet it is still a splendid work by any measure. Unlike many other Italian operas of this period the music is continuous, it does not stop dead for an aria to make a cheap effect via high notes or coloratura runs, and for the most part the music fits the drama perfectly. I just wish that Salieri had cut two or three of his instrumental dances; they are the one thing that very occasionally bogs down the dramatic continuity, but as I said, this is what the Parisians loved. Gluck slowly but surely eliminated this kind of nonsense from his operas, and this is what put him out of favor in Paris. The good thing is that Salieri found a way to blend some of the dance music right into a following scene or aria in the same tempo and key, which helps with the musical if not with the dramatic continuity, and at least his dance music is not as cheap-sounding and “rat-a-tat-tat” as that of Rossini and Verdi. And Salieri also has specific moods for each act, i.e. the first, in which it seems as if joy and happiness are about to reign the music is happy and playful whereas, in the second when Danaus’ dark plot is revealed, the music is slower, softer and moodier.

If I were to make one criticism of the opera as a whole, it is that Salieri dragged out the plot over five acts lasting nearly two hours whereas Gluck would probably have written no more than three and reduced it to roughly 100 minutes. One may say look at how Gluck elongated the discussion between Pylade and Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride, but the music for these scenes is in a very dramatic and almost realistic melodic recitative, not an operatic duet in the strict sense of the term, and when it is seen on stage one is riveted by the conflicting emotions that both brothers have in trying to save one another. Salieri does achieve something of the sort in the dramatic duet between Hypermnestra and Danaus in Act II…or, perhaps, this was one of several passages in the work by Gluck himself. It has his fingerprints on every note and phrase and sounds absolutely nothing like Salieri-cum-Gluck. Nor does the Hypermnestra-Danaus duet in Act III.

As for the recording, this was the second made by conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti, for whom Les Danaïdes seemed to have been a pet project. The first, made in 1983 for Dynamic, was a showcase for the famous soprano Montserrat Caballé. Please note that I call her as a famous soprano and not a great one. Caballé had a fabulous voice but was seldom a great artist. Almost nothing she sang projected an actual character. She did not sing from the heart but to show off the beauty of her voice, and as a result this earlier recording dragged in places which disrupted the structure of the music. In this 1990 recording, Gelmetti has the services of the excellent British soprano Margaret Marshall, little remembered today, as well as then then-quite-famous tenor Raul Giménez, a fine singer who spent way too much wasted time warbling Rossinian garbage, but the dramatic stars here are the pungent, dark-voiced Greek bass Dimitri Kavrakos, who sounds quite a bit like Boris Christoff except with a quick vibrato in the voice and soprano Clarry Bartha as Plancippe, who projects her character with great interior feeling. Modern-day HIP conductor Christophe Rousset has more recently made a recording of this opera for Bru Zane, but the ultra-thinness and whiny straight tone of his orchestra rob the music of much-needed gravitas.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

Return to homepage OR

Read The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Classical Music


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s