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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Alceste (1767/1776) [146.47]
Alceste – Janet Baker (mezzo)
Admète – Robert Tear (tenor)
Le Grand Prêtre; Un Dieu infernal – John Shirley Quirk (bass-baritone)
Evandre – Maldwyn Davies (tenor)
Le Héraut; Le Dieu Apollon  – Philip Gelling (bass)
Le Dieu Hercule – Jonathan Summers (bass)
Coryphées – Elaine Mary Hall (soprano), Janice Hooper-Rice (mezzo), Mark Curtis (tenor), Matthew Best (bass)
L’Oracle - Matthew Best (bass)
The Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Charles Mackerras
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, 12 December 1981. ADD
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE ROHS010 [71.21 + 75.26] 


Experience Classicsonline

Gluck’s Alceste has many similarities with his more familiar setting of the Orpheus legend. Gluck and his librettist Calzabagi wrote the Italian versions of Orfeo and Alceste for Vienna. Gluck then went on to make French versions of both operas for performance in Paris in the 1770s. The changes he made to transform Alceste into French were rather more substantial than the changes to Orfeo. So it is important to understand the French Alceste to be a substantially different version of the opera to the Italian original, rather than a simple translation.

Alceste and Orfeo have a commonality when it comes to plot and overall tone colour. Both operas are about the love between a couple transcending death. Whereas Orfeo enters Hades to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, Alceste volunteers to die instead of her husband Admète and the climax takes place at the gates of Hell. Both operas have a small cast with no sub-plot, just a single character to play deus-ex-machina (Amor in Orfeo, Hercules in Alceste); in fact the character of Hercules was a late addition to the French version and he does not appear at all in the Italian version. But most importantly both operas have the same dignified, sombre tones coloured by Gluck’s simple, elegant melodies and both operas stand or fall by the name character.

Curiously, Alceste has proved far less popular than Orfeo, as if the notion of pure marital love was less appealing than Orfeo’s quixotic romantic love. For many years the only viable recording in the catalogue was Kirsten Flagstad’s 1950s version of the Italian edition. Subsequently Jessye Norman recorded the French version, Naxos issued a recording of the Italian version based on performances at Drottningholm and John Eliot Gardiner recorded the French version with Anne Sofie von Otter, which must be the ideally recommendable recording.

Now the Royal Opera House have issued a live recording of Janet Baker’s 1981 performance there. Alceste was one of a trio of operas that Baker sang as part of her farewell year. The others were Maria Stuarda at ENO and Orfeo ed Eurydice at Glyndebourne. These latter two have been long available on disc and it is with great pleasure that I report that this new disc is a suitable companion to those two.

For anyone that saw the production, Janet Baker’s Alceste was one of her most notable assumptions. The opera played to Baker’s strengths and built on her ability to carry an opera by sheer force of personality and musicality. It is a joy to have her radiant performance captured on disc.

At the period that the opera was recorded, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House seems to have been less sympathetic to the ideas of period practice than the orchestra at ENO. That said, Charles Mackerras gets them to deliver a finely balanced, restrained performance. From the opening notes of the overture, I was impressed by how beautifully the players capture the dark tones of Gluck’s orchestration and play with a well modulated classicism. Orchestrally the performance wears the years relatively lightly and provided you are not looking for a performance which apes the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, then you should find this disc far more than adequate.

But all this changes when the chorus first enters; they sing Gluck’s lines very robustly, with a vibrato-laden tone which seems to have little to do with French 18th century opera and more to do with a generic 19th century performing practice. Not that the performance of the chorus is bad, it just hasn’t stood the test of time. In fact, in the 1980s I can remember finding a number of Royal Opera House performances unsatisfactory because of the chorus’s stylistic inappropriateness.

Still, all is forgiven when Baker appears. The recording captures the bloom and radiance of her voice; it also captures the characteristic way she slides around the notes, something which you find either expressive or annoying. Anyone who never heard her live will get a very good impression of Baker’s voice and technique from this recording. Personally I love it and find it profoundly moving; for me Baker’s account of Divinités du Styx from the end of Act 1 is worth the price of the set. The character of Alceste dominates the opera and Alceste is completely focused on her marital love so that monotony could threaten. That it does not occur is a tribute to the varied way that Gluck articulates the opera, plus the beauty and variety of expression of Baker’s performance.

The opera was given a strong supporting cast. John Shirley-Quirk makes a robust high priest. He does not sound entirely comfortable with the high tessitura of the role and sings with assertive confidence rather than finesse, but his performance is entirely convincing.

Robert Tear, as Admète, is similarly challenged by the high-lying vocal line. Tear sings the role with his familiar open tones and does not shirk the role’s challenges. Occasionally I wished that I was listening to a singer like Paul Agnew, who can sing these high tenor parts with what appears to be great ease. Ease is not something that Tear brings to Admète, but he creates an unfailingly true line and sings with great musicality.

Both Tear and Baker are notable for their facility with the French language; this is one of the incidental joys, you never have to apologise for the principals’ poor French and their diction is admirably clear. If you can’t have the opera sung by native French speakers then this is the next best thing.

The remainder of the cast provide strong support with Jonathan Summers in the small but important role of Hercules.

Mackerras conducts with poise and dignity. In an interview in the CD booklet he comments that there is little he would change nowadays other than some of the speeds. I can do nothing but agree with him, noting again that this is a performance that stands the test of time.

The sound quality is very good; that it is a live performance means that the singers sometimes move around confusingly. There is not too much stage noise, which is a good thing as the opera is given complete with the ballet movements, though the final divertissement is not complete. That this is a CD is of great benefit here as we can miss out on the risible choreography which accompanied the dance music in the original production.

Choreography apart, I remember the production as looking fabulous and the booklet includes a selection of production photographs. The booklet also includes an assessment of the original performance by Rodney Milnes, an interview with Charles Mackerras and a complete libretto plus English translation.

I can’t honestly recommend this as the sole library version of this opera, because the chorus’s performance is simply not something which I would want to hear every day. But no-one should be without Baker’s radiant performance. Frankly this set is essential; no home should be without one.

Robert Hugill


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