which, in Daniel Heartz’s words, ‘there was no place … for anything that smacked of the folklike, the vulgar, or the everyday world’. Every bit as important, he benefited hugely from doing so. To a home listener today Demofoonte may well come across as Metastasio largely at his worst: it did to me. Against a Classical Thracian backdrop the plot complications prove at once knotty, implausible and mostly just dull. Timante (alto), apparently first son of king Demofoonte (tenor) and due to be married to the Phrygian princess Creusa (soprano), is already secretly married to Dircea (soprano), daughter of the Thracian noble Matusio (baritone) and herself a potential sacrificial victim of the god Apollo, since for reasons too tediously intricate to go into a Thracian virgin has to be offered to him annually—and Dircea is not only not that, but already mother of a son. The most crucial of several plot revelations leading to the traditional lieto fine involves an entirely improbable double switching of parentage: Dircea turns out to be Demofoonte’s daughter and Timante Matusio’s son. Creusa marries Cherinto (alto), Demofoonte’s real son; both king and god are appeased.
To counteract all this, and rather too much of Metastasio’s familiar windy
metaphors and sententious moralizing along the way, a genuine emotional intensity emerges from the language of the married lovers, singly and together, which renders verbally sentient each of their soliloquies and especially their duet of supposed farewell closing Act 2. Of the plentiful indications in the musical setting that even at that stage Gluck instinctively found ways to pierce through the high‑flown Metastasian verbiage to the drama’s emotional content—a musical dramatist’s instinct that was to provide the basis of his mature operatic revolution two decades later—none is more potent than his setting of this duet, which moves from dry recitative to accompagnato and then to the duet ‘La destra ti chiedo’ with a lyrical sweep and a poignant simplicity that immediately become deeply affecting. Much else in the musical unfolding hits home with unexpected directness: maybe not every time in every introductory aria, but sufficiently often for this listener’s involvement to have been grasped and firmly held. In Act 3, devoted as it is to tiresomely protracted plot tidying-up, that involvement is nevertheless sustained and even increased, since each aria of each character, secondary figures included, proves of high and carefully contrasted quality, in terms of the introductory ritornello and the vocal line equally. The work is thus shaped and brought to a conclusion with a skill that to me, at least, has to be proclaimed authentically Gluckian.
‘Avant que Gluck ne soit Gluck’ (‘Before Gluck was Gluck’) is the heading of ClaireMarie Caussin’s recent Demofoonte review on the Wanderer website: not so, I cry in response! It’s true that lying ahead on the list of Gluck’s Metastasian settings are such opere serie as Semiramide riconosciuta (1748), La clemenza di Tito (1752), L’innocenza giustificata (1755) and Antigono (1756), each showing how much
Opera, May 2021