Otmar Suitner was archetypical of the type of Central European conductor who comes up through the ranks (i.e., opera house, theater, or if an instrumentalist, house orchestra) and worked his way up to leadership by dint of musicality. Some move on to what is essentially international "stardom," such as the case with Karajan or Klemperer.
The packaging for this recording, though handsomely produced, gives a perplexing impression of the content of the CDs. The album's title (in French) is Philémon et Baucis, though there is no reference to that title in the extensive program notes, which focus exclusively on a work called Le Feste d'Apollo. In fact, Le Feste d'Apollo, premiered in 1769, consisted of a prologue and three unrelated short acts, each a self-contained opera, with texts by four different Italian poets. This CD set includes two of those operas, Aristeo and Bauci e Filemone, the third opera being an early version of Orfeo ed Eurydice written in 1762, 12 years before the definitive French version of Gluck's masterpiece.
‘Perhaps the best of all my works’, said Gluck of his Armide. But this, the fifth of his seven ‘reform operas’, has never quite captured the public interest as have Orfeo, Alceste, the two Iphigenies and even Paride ed Elena. Unlike those works it is based not on classical mythology but on Tasso’s crusade epic, Gerusalemme liberata. No doubt Gluck turned to this libretto, originally written by Quinault, to challenge Parisian taste by inviting comparison with the much-loved Lully setting. Its plot is thinnish, concerned only with the love of the pagan sorceress Armide, princess of Damascus, for the Christian knight and hero Renaud, and his enchantment and finally his disenchantment and his abandonment of her; the secondary characters have no real life. Its style, largely determined by the structure of the libretto, is closer to the French tragedie-lyrique traditions than are Gluck’s more familiar operas, with its short airs gliding into arioso and recitative.
It may seem surprising that this is the first complete recording of Gluck's one-act opera (or, as he called it, serenata teatrale) La corona (The Crown) after more than 240 years. The work was never performed during Gluck's lifetime; written for the name day of Francis I, husband of Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, it was rendered irrelevant by the dedicatee's death in 1765. The listener will discover soon enough why no one has thought to revive the work since then.
Most opera fans are familiar with Gluck the reformist – the composer of Orphée et Eurydice who sought to balance drama and music in his works. But few know his early works which show him to be a master of the Baroque opera seria tradition he later rejected. L'innocenza giustificata, a festa teatrale written in 1755, is one of these works. Its structure – cobbled together from aria texts by Pietro Metastasio, but with new recitatives by Giacomo Durazzo – already shows a desire to create more dramatic continuity and interest than was commonly found in the Baroque period.
This is the masterwork, Gluck's last important opera, which convinced the teenage medical student Berlioz, when he first heard it in 1821, that he had to be a composer. He worshipped Gluck and took his side in the phoney "Gluck vs.Piccini War". He set himself the task of sitting in the Conservatoire library to copy out the entire score in order to absorb its lessons. Its directness and drama influenced his artistic style his whole life through, as evinced by key points in "Les Troyens".
Following the success of 1999's thrilling Armide, Marc Minkowski and his excellent cast fully convey the power and drama of Gluck's masterpiece. They pull you into the story (based on a play by Euripides) through the emotional truth of their interpretation. The opening quiet strings create an air of mystery dispelled by a ferocious storm magnificently conveyed by these early-music specialists. Within a few phrases of Iphigénie's opening lament, Delunsch creates a believable, sympathetic character.
The playing and singing of Hickox’s own orchestra and chorus are always mindful of stylistic matters, crisp and airy in the sensuous dance music, urgent and theatrical (in the best sense) in passionate sections of the score, which Hickox holds together in exemplary manner (Gramophone Magazine). Hickox conducts with a fine sense of theatre, as well as an aptly Gluckian restraint…Palmer is remarkable at her best, and her duet with Rolfe Johnson ('Armide, vous m'allez quitter') is memorably done (International Record Review).