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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Alceste (Paris version, 1776) [138:09]
Dame Janet Baker (Alceste, mezzo), Robert Tear (Admète, tenor), Jonathan Summers (Le Dieu Hercule, baritone), John Shirley-Quirk (Le Grand-Prêtre d’Apollon, Un Dieu Infernal, baritone), Matthew Best (L’Oracle, bass), Philip Gelling (Le Hérault, Le Dieu Apollon, tenor), Maldwyn Davies (Evandre, tenor), Elaine Mary Hall, Janice Hooper-Roe, Mark Curtis, Matthew Best (Coryphées)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Sir Charles Mackerras
Live relay from Covent Garden, 12th December 1981
PONTO PO-1035 [72:43 + 65:26]

This recording presents a famous moment in the annals of recent British opera history, for it was during the 1981 season that Dame Janet Baker felt that she had reached the summit of what she could achieve in opera and that this season would be her last. So this live relay was her farewell to the house. Alceste was one of her favourite roles and she performs it with regal authority, passion and impressive stamina – it’s a role which requires her to sing almost uninterruptedly throughout the evening.

Even without this aspect, the performance represents British opera of the day at its best. For a start we have Mackerras who finds the true Gluckian tone; dignified and statuesque but urgent and dramatic at the same time – it’s so easy to veer too much towards one or the other. And then Robert Tear and (particularly) John Shirley-Quirk are in fine form and indeed, of the whole cast I had reservations only about Jonathan Summers’ unpleasantly stentorian Hercules.

Admirers of Gluck should note that this is the French version, otherwise available from Otter/Gardiner and Norman/Baudo. Ponto provide a presentation of the performance but no libretto or even synopsis. All I managed to find on Internet was a libretto of the Italian version, and tried following that, which is as good a way as any of seeing how different they are. In fact, after about two-thirds of the way through the first act they virtually become different operas; the French version is more formal and succinct (the opposite of the situation with "Orfeo", then), with several characters eliminated and the first act, for example, discarding a lengthy confrontation between Alceste and the infernal deities and simply closing with the opera’s most famous aria, "Divinités du Styx". I must say I find "Alceste", at least in its French version, a more formally satisfying and stylistically coherent opera than "Orfeo ed Euridice" (in either version), while admitting that it contains nothing as sheerly beautiful as certain portions of the earlier work.

This is, I take it, an off-the-air recording, and at first it seemed pretty good, except that the stereo channels are reversed, unless Mackerras had his violins (and also flutes) on the right for some reason, and the cellos and most of the brass on the left. I found this a bit disconcerting, but even more so is a degree of distortion affecting the upper frequencies and so affecting Dame Janet’s top notes which are made to seem tremulous and strained. Future generations will get the idea that she was less secure technically than we know her to have been. For much of the second disc the recording seems to be a more congested mono one. Though there’s not much space around the sound, oddly enough Dame Janet’s top notes sound all right here. Thereafter the stereo image wanders a bit – it almost seems like a mono recording wandering between the speakers, until it opens up and finishes as it began (with the channels reversed). Problems with the original broadcast? With the home-taper’s equipment? Have Ponto had to piece it together from at least two incomplete sources?

While this is nothing like as problematic as Ponto’s "Vestale" excerpts from Rome which I recently commented on, and while we would obviously give a fortune to hear, say, Guild’s series of Met relays from the 1930s and 1940s in sound remotely approaching this, all the same, a 1981 BBC relay should sound better. If by any miracle the BBC still hold the original tapes, the performance should be issued on BBC Legends without delay. As it is, it is an important issue for opera buffs and I am glad to have it, but it doesn’t quite compete with the best "official" versions.

Christopher Howell


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