Hidden Beauty: Gluck's 'Telemaco'

Like many old sayings, the adage about "not seeing the forest for the trees" addresses a simple concept that's not easily explained without concrete examples to prove the point. As it happens, the world of music provides plenty of good examples -- found in the work of artists ranging from The Beatles to the composer of this week's opera.

To start, consider The Beatles. When the group landed in the U.S. in 1964, topping the charts with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the reception was nothing short of rapturous, complete with shrieking teenagers and fawning critics. In the decades since, things have changed a bit.

By now, discussions of The Beatles tend to be more analytical than emotional, evaluating their cultural influence, their historical impact, and the nuances of their technical and musical innovations. Virtually every note they ever played or wrote has been examined in meticulous detail. But amidst all those intellectual appraisals, it's easy to lose track of the most basic reason for the group's unprecedented success: People love their music, perhaps because much of it is just plain beautiful. And anyone who's lost track of that only needs to cue up tunes such as "Julia," "Eleanor Rigby," "Blackbird" or "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," for a quick reminder.

The music and reputation of Christoph Willibald Gluck have undergone a similar process, and in Gluck's case, it all took place so long ago that, today, discussions of his place in music history can be all that we see and hear -- at the expense of the music itself.

In operatic circles, Gluck's name has become nearly synonymous with the word "reform," and not without good reason. The composer came of age during the era of opera seria. That's the Baroque style typified by long sequences of dry recitatives alternating with highly-ornamented solo arias -- intended more to show off the technique of star singers than to advance the plot. And in opera seria there's often not much plot to begin with.

Gluck decided things should change -- that opera should be less about long-established forms and showy singing, and more about drama and story. He often dispensed with traditional, virtuoso arias in favor of numbers with simple, straightforward melodies actually intended to express their character's feelings. He frequently accompanied his recitatives with passionate orchestral music, and he incorporated frequent choruses and ensembles to heighten the dramatic impact of his operas. In the process, he created a new genre of opera that had a striking influence on generations of composers to follow.

Yet another result of Gluck's astonishing innovations is that the less stylized, more natural world of opera's classical era, which Gluck helped to create, soon overshadowed his own works -- many of which are now analyzed more often than they're performed. And that's too bad, because as with The Beatles, it's surely the sheer beauty of Gluck's music that keeps it popular today.

Gluck's 1765 opera Telemaco is a sort of hybrid that bridges the gap between Gluck's revolutionary "reform operas" -- including Orphée and Alceste -- and traditional opera seria. Its first audiences didn't seem to know quite what to make of the piece, and it's been pretty much neglected ever since. But Gluck thought enough of the score to resurrect some of its best music in several of his later, more famous works, including his two Iphigénie operas.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Telemaco in a production from the Schwetzingen Festival in southwestern Germany. The stars are countertenor David DQ Lee as the troubled title character, soprano Agneta Eichenholz as the spiteful goddess Circe and tenor Tomasz Zagorski as Ulysses, in a production that also features the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.