Greek premiere of Austrian composer’s forgotten ‘Telemaco’

In a Greek first, the Herod Atticus Theater will be presenting this Saturday Gluck’s opera «Telemaco,» a performance, moreover, that will be the first in two-and-a-half centuries to be sung in Italian. Thanks to the efforts of the English Bach Festival, founded in 1961 by Greek harpsichordist Lina Lalandi and her husband Ralph Emery, this historic opera will be revived in Athens with period costumes and sets based on the original designs for the opera’s 1765 premiere, and will also include designs by the celebrated Italian set designer Lorenzo Quaglio. Of late, interest in what are known as Gluck’s «Italian» operas have revived, mainly thanks to Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Widely known for the opera «Orfeo et Euridice,» the Austrian composer is something of a special case in the history of music. He has been credited with the reform that gave rise to serious Italian opera (opera seria), while some argue that he dealt the fatal blow to the tradition of castrati (eunuch) singers. In fact, the truth is otherwise. Before «Orfeo» (1762), Gluck had been engaged with opera seria for several years. Indeed, 16 of the 29 operas preceding «Orfeo» were based on the poetry of Pietro Metastasio, the artist most responsible for establishing the principles of opera seria. These 16 works were successfully presented in Milan, Venice, Turin, London, Dresden, Copenhagen, Prague, Naples and Rome – most of Europe – winning Gluck widespread acclaim. Their scores contained important roles for castrati, while the role of Orfeo – in the first of Gluck’s post-reformist operas – was initially written for Gaetano Guadagni, a leading castrato of the time. In 1761, Gluck met Italian poet Ranieri da Calzabigi in the royal court of Vienna where he had served since 1754. The poet’s «post-reformist» ideas on the close ties between music, poetry and dance sparked the interest of the composer, who was nearly 50 years old at the time. Music was required to flow without being being divided into distinct musical segments (arias, duets, etc.) and the libretto was required to present the story in the clearest possible fashion to the audience. These concepts were foreign to the Italian opera seria of the Baroque period, though not to the same genre in French opera, what was known as lyrical tragedy. Gluck’s «post-reformist» operas eased into this category. Until his encounter with Calzabigi, the composer had offered the Viennese public a number of comic operas based on French texts. However, an increasing interest in serious French music persuaded the composer to leave Vienna in 1773 and move to Paris. He returned to the capital of the Hapsburgs in 1779 and lived there until his death in 1787, basking in the general acclaim. «Telemaco» was pressed upon Gluck in the winter of 1764. The deadline was tight as it was meant to be a part of the festivities marking the second wedding of the heir apparent and later emperor, Joseph II. The opera’s theme was particularly popular, thanks to the then-famous didactic novel «Les Aventures de Telemaque,» written by Fenelon, a French writer, priest and educator. As the composer was pressed for time, poet Marco Coltellini, the libretto’s author, drew on a previous libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece for Scarlatti’s three-act opera on the same subject (1718). Coltellini shared Calzabigi’s ideas concerning reform in opera and gave Gluck a libretto which could serve those principles. The composer also took advantage of older material for his opera, though the result was something of particular and independent interest. «Telemaco» was the composer’s most important work along with two other «reformist» operas: «Orfeo» and «Alcestis.» The opera’s score clearly shows the transition from the principles of Italian opera to French works. The dances and choral parts alternate as in «Orfeo,» while the oracle scene was later reused in «Alcestis.» However, the Baroque is still reflected in the fact that the roles of Telemaco and Merione are written for voices of female timbre, for contralto and castrato respectively. The opera was first performed at the Burgtheater of Vienna on January 30, 1765, though the critics of the time did not welcome Gluck’s reformist spirit. Nevertheless, the composer made use of many of the opera’s elements in later works – ones which today are much more famous – such as «Iphigenie en Aulide» (1774), «Iphigenie en Tauride» (1779) and «Armide» (1786). After its premiere, the opera fared badly. Today, many questions remain concerning its original structure, as Gluck never published the score. The first modern performance of the opera was held in 1987 in Salzburg, but it was sung in German. The performance by the English Bach Festival is the first in the original Italian. Herod Atticus Theater, tel 210.323.2771, Athens Festival box office, 39 Panepistimiou, tel 210.322.1459.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.