Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Vocal Ornamentation in Gluck's Reform Operas – Please Discuss

While looking up the DVD of an Orfeo performance in order to comment on one of my own recent posts, I read a reviewer complaint about the ornaments that countertenor Jochen Kowalski added to "Che faro..." So of course I had to track it down and listen to it (the aria starts at about 3 minutes in)

I didn't find it too bad. But I understood the reviewer's concern. I had a similar initial reaction while listening to Franco Fagioli in a gorgeous concert performance broadcast not long ago. 

Just as the (in)famous aria (variously known as "Amour, viens rendre," "L'Espoir Renaît Dans Mon Âme," and "Addio, miei sospiri") seems out of place, Mr Fagioli's ornamentation sounded a little anti-Gluck. I found it somewhat jarring. (On rehearing, I find I'm not as bothered by it any more.)

However, I do feel that Che faro really doesn't need any embellishment; it's perfect as is. (Although other singers have added a trill or a few appoggiaturas here and there, which never seemed out of place.) 

So this made me wonder what Gluck, opera "reformists," and other opera lovers would think about these additions.  
  • Are these ornaments out of character?
  • Are they anti-Reform?
  • Are they fine as long as they're tastefully done (a subjective call, at best)?
  • Should singers (and conductors) refrain from ornamenting Gluck – ever?
  • Should we just relax and enjoy the lovely singing?

Please feel free to discuss. Use other side of paper if necessary.


  1. - Are these ornaments out of character? - considering it's the same chap who earlier sings the out of place aria, I'd say no. However, in a production that skips that one the singer might want to refrain from embellishments here. On second thought, maybe not. The poor chap has lost his beloved twice, I think we can cut him a bit of slack and let him fall apart emotionally for once.

    - Are they anti-Reform? - probably.

    - Are they fine as long as they're tastefully done (a subjective call, at best)? - isn't that true of all singing? If I like it it's fine! Heh. That's my motto, really, not being a musicologist/musician.

    - Should singers (and conductors) refrain from ornamenting Gluck – ever? - no. Singers and conductors should never be afraid to experiment.

    - Should we just relax and enjoy the lovely singing? - certainly. Like I said above, not being a musicologist, what I expect from a recording is to like it not to conform to this or that rule. Further, I'm not Gluck (surprise!) and I don't live in the 1770s. It's not my duty to carry his Reform torch. I appreciate his thinking and I agree music of his day needed a bit of toning down in the ornament area. However, I like ornamentation. I have absolutely no problem with either of the renditions above.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      I generally agree with your responses. As an organ student, I was compelled to think about appropriate ornamentation (one jury in my Master's degree years--an end of semester final exam--turned into a master class on French Baroque ornamentation--which was interesting, but a bit of a stressful boondoggle).

      But as a music-loving listener, I tend to listen less academically and more emotionally, and let the musicologists to quibble over the finer points. Of course, sometimes I am startled when I hear a new ornament or two. But then I have the fun of deciding if I like it or not. More often than not, I am delighted by the new sound.

    2. ah, teachers, eh? - always eager to impart knowledge, even when it's not the right time. As a geek I love master classes as you come out with something even if you know very little about the subject. Therefore I enjoyed your and Paua Girl's knowledgeable comments below mine :-)

      What I wanted to add almost immediately after I commented above (but didn't want to clutter my post) was that it's of course not as straight forward. Musicians can take all the chances they want but the public might still not like it. I really dislike Rossini's added ornaments to Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, for instance.

    3. I finally received my (used) copy of the Cambridge Opera Handbok volume on Orfeo. it has a few interesting quotes (at least one of which is by Gluck) about the music and about ornamentation in general, plus a photo of an ornamented version of the "da capo" of Che faro...which seems to be the version Sigr Fagioli (see above) referenced for his performance.

      Watch out for another Orfeo/Orphee post! :-)

  2. When I listened to these performances, I actually found it harder to get my head around hearing the aria sung in Italian than to accept the ornamentation. I don't love the ornamentation I heard since I don't think it adds anything particularly expressive but I don't hate it, either. Because the tempi for both performances are on the slow side, the ornamentation doesn't seem to clutter the melody too much (to my ears, anyway). Having said that, I don't actually think the aria needs more ornamentation than Gluck has already written into it (eg all those weeping-sounding pairs of quavers where the first of the pair is leaned on and the second is weak). I'd love to know what Gluck wrote about the subject of ornamentation - I really only learned about the various baroque styles when I was studying.

    1. I was thinking the same about the quavers (eight notes to us in the US) that they sounded like written-in ornaments.

      Funny about the French vs. Italian. I first heard and learned to love this opera from two recordings in Italian. The one with Marilyn Horne and Georg Solti, and the earlier one with Rise Stevens and Pierre Monteux -- both of which are slow and sound really old-fashioned to me now. (I think the Solti recording was the first, or one of the first performances of the Vienna version that they added "that aria" from the Paris version. Ms. Stevens sings the whole opera straight and Ms. Horne adds some tasteful (for the time) ornamentation, as one might expect.

      Now, I've heard it in French more than Italian, so once I realize which one I am listening to, I can adapt pretty quickly. :-) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I love "Amour viens rendre" and don't think it sounds out of place at all so that probably disqualifies me from replying to this, but in my opinion, Che faro should not be ornamented at all - it should be raw emotion, raw grief. I don't even approve of the ornaments written in the score (not sure if these are Gluck's own or some later convention as most singers don't sing them).

    1. Loving "Amour viens rendre" definitely does not disqualify you! :-) I happen to love it too (but I still thinks it sounds "dropped in" to the opera. That being said, if someone does full-on original Vienna version and leaves the aria out, I feel cheated! I concur for the most part on the "Che faro" that it doesn't need much ornamentation.

      I am going to do another post on this (I promise!), but I'll add here that Gluck himself said referring specifically to "Che faro",

      "One note held too long or too short, a careless increase in tempo or volume, one appoggiatura misplaced, an ornament, passage or roulade can ruin a whole scene in such an opera."


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