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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Alceste – Tragic opera in three Acts - Paris Version (1776)
Admète - Donald Kaasch (tenor)
Alceste - Catherine Naglestad (soprano)
Évandre - Bernhard Schneider (tenor)
Chorus Leader - Catriona Smith (soprano)
High Priest of Apollo / Thanatos - (baritone)
Voice of the Oracle - Nam Kim Soo (bass)
Apollo - Motti Kastón (bass-baritone)
Hercules - Michael Ebbecke (bass)
A Herald - Wolfgang Probst (bass-baritone)
Choir of the Stuttgart State Opera
Stuttgart State Orchestra/Constantinos Carydis
rec. Staatsoper Stuttgart, 2006
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 251 [165:00]


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.

Bernhard Schneider (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 that.

Robert McKechnie


 

 


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