COMMENT: ALCESTE seen at The Barbican and heard at home. Some further reflections on different audience situations, following my reflections on critics' seats for Mahler symphonies (S&H October).
Gluck Alceste (Paris version, 1776) starring Anne Sophie van Otter, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The Barbican, 26 October and Radio 3, 13 November
The first of two semi-staged London performances of Gluck's Alceste, in its later revision, followed a run of fully staged performances in France. It was recorded by both R3 and Decca and was, to my ears, impressive particularly for the sounds produced by John Eliot Gardiner and his band of authentic instrument players. The strong cast was headed by Sophie van Otter, who made a splendid figure in brilliant red amongst all the black, processing slowly and queenly up and down the steps to the singing position. Everyone duly emoted about her fate and we were all relieved that she was rescued from sacrificial death in the nick of time. The audience's enthusiasm was unreserved.
But, from an expensive critic's seat in the back stalls, I left the Barbican with some nagging personal (maybe sacrilegious) reservations about Gluck's music. No question that it is dignified and beautiful, but is it not a little too simple to hold attention fully, especially without the whole theatrical experience? I confess to having found myself a little bored from time to time; despite this being one of the most prestigious concerts of the autumn season.
Alceste has never been a popular opera, and perhaps the reasons for my slight disappointment, after so hyped a 'hot ticket' event, include some musical limitations in Gluck's harmonic palette and his dramatic pacing? We are now in a time when there is apparently a thirst for undemanding, reassuring music, exemplified by the various simple reactions to modernism and complexity. The rhythmic certainties of Steve Reich's slowly changing patterns, the comforting reliance on simple chords and repetitions in Glass's operas, and the latter day holy simplicities of Tavener are currently in favour; perhaps Gluck is an early representative of a tendency to Noble Simplicity, and his musical shortcomings are ignored and denied?
These heretical musings were brought up sharply by hearing the same performance (billed for R3 the following day) belatedly broadcast last night, 13th November. That break of time enabled me to encounter Alceste again more freshly. Fortuitously, I had mislaid my libretto supplied at the Barbican, so I was approaching it as would have most radio listeners. To my surprise, it worked more strongly than expected as heard on digital satellite radio, the microphone placements giving great vividness and underlining the tension, freed from the distractions of movements to and from the platform of people in concert uniform. There was an additional distraction in the invitation to look simultaneously three ways, due to the uncommon luxury of being provided with two competing translations from the French, with Lionel Salter's translation for an earlier CD in one's hand, and another (seemingly better) translation used for sur-titles above! I was more convinced at home by the drama of despair, selfless sacrifice, false hopes soon to be dashed, and final rescue, and found myself better able to understand the enthusiasm of Berlioz, who learned Alceste by heart. I have had variable responses to Gluck operas before, sometimes moved, at others left uninvolved. He seems to be one of those 'great' composers whose music is fragile and very much dependent upon performance.
Many of us divide our listening between live events, recordings and radio, the latter particularly important for people living far from city centres. Perhaps Music on the Web should spread its far flung net even further, with regular broadcast music reviews?
There is a CD on Orfeo C027823F (cond. Baudo, 1982) and an older one from the New York Met "with commentary" (Naxos 8 110006/7). I think buyers would be well advised to await the release of Decca's new recording of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's chosen version, taken from these late 1999 Barbican performances, even though they may miss the familiar Divinités du Styx.
Peter Grahame Woolf
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