Interpolation or preface:
an opera-going friend said a synopsis would help because this
opera had been little performed in his life-time. True. So here
is a seriously ‘potted’ synopsis of the events in the main square
of Pherae in Thessaly; the Temple of Apollo with, usually, a large
statue of the god; a dense underworld forest; a room at the palace,
and finally the entrance to the palace.
Admète, the king,
is about to die. The people and his wife Alceste lament. At the
temple the oracle pronounces that he will die unless another takes
his place. The people depart hastily. Alceste volunteers. Admète
recovers, is re-united with Alceste. Under pressure to explain
her sadness and weakening condition she confesses why Admète had
recovered. Having failed to persuade her to renounce her decision
Admète resolves to die with her. The underworld arrive to take
her away but Hercules appears and saves her. Apollo has to sanction
Hercules’ behaviour - he contradicted another god - and all live
happily ever after. Well they do in the conventional, and this
potted, version. Now let us get down to the nitty-gritty.
If you are going to
be put off purchasing this DVD because the booklet front (above)
tells you that it is a very modern production, I will heap coals
onto your fire of aversion. And having done that I will then pour
the water of delight over your bonfire such that you may find
it difficult not to spend your hard-earned gains.
So, let us have some
more lumps of coal and get them out of the way. The setting is
some time in or about the 1960s. Where? That is difficult, but
I believe that it is a sanatorium with rooms on the first floor,
a courtyard and a chapel. Admète’s room overlooks the courtyard
and from where the herald makes his opening announcement. The
chorus are below, congregating outside front of stage. For Act/scene
-changes there are sliding wooden laminated screens. Ghastly polypropylene
and chrome type chairs are moved to face different directions
to emphasise such changes. For much of the time there is strip
lighting. There is one, blessedly brief, ‘happy-clappy’ chorus.
The statue through which the oracle speaks is a puny thirty centimetres
on a small altar that is light enough to be moved by one person.
The priest’s pedestal or pulpit is swept aside for an equally
portable wooden lectern. Finally, so that your cup runneth over,
the underworld is represented by the shadow enveloped control
cabin - see the back of the picture above - which helpfully slides
across stage as necessary.
You would expect no
less than all that from Wieler and Morabito. They also sweep away
the ballet and introduce a sequence of movements for the cast
in the concluding chaconne.
No doubt it is intended
that that paring away of any ‘niceties’ should free us from fripperies
and enable us to concentrate on the drama. I have no fundamental
quarrel with either the principle or the application of it. However,
I really do dislike two distractions. First, Catriona Smith (Chorus
Leader) intermittently conducts her charges like a wing-flapping
marionette. Second, and much worse, the children are allowed to
move about the stage during chorus and aria to the apparent distraction
of the performers and my certain distraction.
Accepting the distractions,
does the production enable us to concentrate on the music and
drama? To which the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ in every aspect.
The music is, of course, stunningly passionate, the singing is
quite excellent in almost every aspect and the acting is superb.
Indeed Catherine Naglestad’s acting of the title role ought to
be made compulsory study for anyone with RADA pretensions. And
that is before a word is written about her voice. Tempting though
it is to give numerous examples, to your relief, I shall refrain.
However I shall not refrain from banging on about her voice. Maybe
early on there are one or two slight hints of strain on high at
forte - but curiously not when fortissimo - but
she epitomises the despair and anguish that this amazing role
offers. Take her Air “Ah! Malgré moi …”which she delivers
partly lying across those chairs: glorious, smooth sounds, phrasing
that makes you hold your breath, high notes piano which
should make the hairs of your neck tingle, controlled trills and
colours in abundance. For the final verse she moves to a sitting
position and demonstrates what sheer power she controls. This
alone would justify the purchase.
Donald Kaasch plays
the monarch as one of his adored and adoring people. This is no
remote monarch. With his male populace in dark suit and ties -
ladies in white blouses and skirts - there is nothing to distinguish
him save his waistcoat and lack of a tie. This is a gentle monarch
with ‘hands on’ blessings as he moves among his people. Only when
Alceste admits that she will die in his place is there intensity
of passion. Kaasch has power but his strength lies in the smooth
middle and high area – particularly when delivered piano.
His additional strength is his pronunciation – quite admirable.
He and Naglestad together produce an excellent vocal balance with
some stirring dynamics. But ‘happily ever after’? I did wonder
whether there was a hint that all was not well between them at
the start of Act II – was he really devastated by her decision;
a suspicion that seemed to be confirmed in the body language during
the concluding chaconne, or at least such of it as the camera
allowed us to see.
(Évandre), whilst on stage for long periods, has little singing
but what he has he delivers with his crisp tenor matching the
clarity of Catriona Smith’s choral leading soprano - oh, she of
the flailing arms.
The first paragraph
of the accompanying booklet concludes that Gluck’s Italian version
(1767) and this later French version “… should be regarded as
two independent compositions”. Agreed. So why then spend time
in not the clearest comparisons including commentaries on scenes
in the Italian version which were omitted from this later French
version? The booklet offers few comments on this production. One
offer is that because the vocal ranges for the High Priest and
Thanatos are ‘virtually identical’ the two roles are taken by
the same singer. Accepting that the unidentified author had access
to the Directors I do wonder about that simple explanation, particularly
when in the ‘mimed – slow motion’ chaconne that High Priest, who
always wore a white shirt, now sits down wearing the blue one
of Thanatos. That causes Alceste to move her child away from that
figure. An interesting juxtaposition; but maybe I should just
accept the simple explanation.
Whatever that is,
Johan Rydh despatches both roles with a studied reserve, almost
majestically delivered sound and good diction.
Michael Ebbecke (Hercules)
erupts onto the stage. He is almost an Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alike.
He has come to save the day, charm the children and win the heroine
– wait till you see the sunburst radiant smile she reserves for
him. Apart from the occasional vocal wobble Ebbecke makes the
most of the comparatively small role with stage-filling sound
and entertaining acting.
In contrast Motti
Kastón’s Apollo is almost a diffident god whose bare-footed simple
solo ‘dance’ movements appear played for his own pleasure. This
is another softly sung role that Kastón despatches easily.
The orchestra is very
good indeed with excellent phrasing and dynamics but never forgetting
that they are supporting the events on stage. The young Greek
conductor provides excellent tempos throughout and the orchestral
soloists, so important in this work, are on cracking form.
The other main character
is the chorus, a point made forcefully by Gluck when writing to
his librettist. This chorus whilst not having the best diction
vocally reflect superbly the emotions: from angst to pleasurable
relief. Here indeed the chorus is totally involved to the end.
Finally, at risk of
upsetting readers who dislike modern productions as such, I have
the strongest suspicion that Gluck would have approved of this
production. Again when writing to his librettist about the old
rules, he wrote that it is not necessary to submit to them, “…we
must … seek to become original.”. This production certainly achieves