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Gluck and a Good Glass of Inferno

Opera and voices. Ballet and bodies. Wine and tastebuds. Heaven and Hell. They actually all go well together.

And since the creation of opera and ballet and their evolution, it is only the consumption of wine which has remained consistent from the beginning to the present day. And I don't mean the wine at the reception afterwards, but the imbibing of alcohol on the stage.

There is champagne, of course. Who can forget the Libiamo toast of La Traviata? And, perhaps most famous is the champagne aria of Don Giovanni. Indeed, as Gluck celebrates his 300th anniversary in 2014, let us speak more about Don Juan and Gluck and also about Mozart and Boccherini and add a dose of Dante and that fiery Hell which seemed to inspire just about everyone.

Gluck's ballet Don Juan ou Le Festin de Pierre, based on Molière's play of the same name, premiered in Vienna in 1761, and presents the moment when Don Juan, after saying no to the Commandants invitation to repent, descends into Inferno. Gasparo Angiolini, the choreographer, gave his own description of this infernal scene as found in his manifesto of ballet reform: "The centre of the earth opens up, belching flames. From this volcano emerge many spectres and furies which torment Don Juan. He is chained up by them, and in his dreadful despair is swallowed up along with all the monsters; and an earthquake covers the spot with a pile of rubble."

Luigi Boccherini was a cellist in the orchestra of the Theatre am Kärntnertor where the Don Juan of Gluck and Angiolini was premiered. In 1771, Boccherini was inspired and composed a sinfonia in d minor which, in the non-autograph manuscript in the library of the Milan Conservatory, is entitled ‘La Casa del Diavolo’ (The house of the Devil). In the printed edition published in Paris around 1776 as his op.Xll no.4, the title is somewhat elaborated: "Chaconne qui représente l’Enfer et qui a été faite à imitation de celle de Mr. Gluck dans le Festin de Pierre" (Chaconne representing Hell, which was written in imitation of that by Mr Gluck in his ‘Stone Guest’). The Casa del Diavolo is actually based on the last movement in Gluck’s ballet, however Boccherini ends his music quite dramatically as opposed to Gluck's pure pianissimo. It is worth noting that musicologist Cesare Fertonani suggests the other movements of Boccherini’s sinfonia contain references and allusions to Gluck’s ballet. Fertonani also argues the Casa del Diavolo is ‘in similar fashion to Mozart’s later Don Giovanni overture, in the link between the slow introduction in D minor (Andante sostenuto) and a sonata allegro in D major (Allegro assai) representing the dramatic essence of the theatrical myth of Don Juan, the contrast between tragic and comic, death and life, transcendence and immanence, divine law and life force’.

Mozart presents that fateful moment when the rebel rouser confronts his own vanity and is condemned to Hell by the Ghost. Have you ever wondered what happens to Don Giovanni afterwards? The "expert" on Hell is Dante. In Dante's voyage through Inferno, Dante comes to he city of Dis and its entombed heretics. He speaks to the souls condemned to Hell for their Epicurean sins of not only living for the temptations of the moment, but also their denial of the afterlife. Perhaps Don Juan (Giovanni) in Inferno represents our deepest fear: That of nothingness.

There is a wine that can correspond to this moment of hellish destiny, but it is quite something. The 2009 Inferno Carlo (Nino) Negri Valtellina Superiore DOCG. Had this wine been produced in the 18th century, it might have been the one these composers and librettists include at the dinner of the Commandant. This wine comes from the smallest and most inaccessible zone in Valtellina, in the north of Italy, bordering Switzerland. Named Inferno because of its steep slopes and hellish summer temperatures, the wine is produced from the Chiavennasca (Nebbiolo) grapes. The grapes are hand harvested, and mature in French oak barrels for nearly 2 years. The result is a deep, ruby colour, a bouquet of spice, and red fruits. On the tongue, Inferno is full bodied, with nearly 14% alcohol. But what makes it most attractive is the price. At only 20€ a bottle, Hell has never been so cheap. And you do not need to sell your soul to get there. As Don Juan and the Inferno Valtellina prove, Hell has never tasted nor sounded so good. Lets raise a glass and wish Gluckwunsch to Mr. Gluck!

John Axelrod
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