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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Alceste (Paris version 1776)
Admète – Charles Castronovo
Alceste – Dorothea Röschmann
Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon / Hercule – Michael Nagy
Évandre – Manuel Günther
Apollon / Un Hérault – Sean Michael Plumb
Un Dieu infernal / l’Oracle – Callum Thorpe
Chœur des Coryphées – Anna El-Khashem, Noa Beinart, Frederic Jost, Caspar Singh
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Compagnie Eastman, Antwerp, Bayerisches Staatsorchester/Antonello Manacorda.
Stage director and choreographer – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
Rec. live, 26 May 2019, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.
C MAJOR DVD 756708 [135:00]

Performances of Gluck’s operas are rare considering their musical qualities, so I am inclined to celebrate almost any company which has the courage to put one on. The basic story of Alceste is a simple one, which derives from a play by Euripides: Admète (Admetus) is due to die, unless someone will agree to die instead of him. His wife Alceste (Alcestis) puts herself forward but keeps it secret. When he discovers it, Admète is horrified. She does die, but Hercule (Hercules) turns up and rescues her, so the opera ends with rejoicing. There are numerous intervening choruses and ballets. There had been previous operatic versions by Lully and Handel. Gluck used his to promote his view of opera as essentially dramatic, purging display elements, and wrote (or at least signed) a famous polemical preface to argue for this. His original version used an Italian libretto and was first performed in Vienna in 1769, but here we have, as usual, the 1776 recomposition for Paris, for which he added some ballets and substantially revised the music.

However, Alceste does pose some problems. The story, in this version, is rather thin – there is more variety in Euripides – and consistently melancholy. One cannot help feeling that the story has been stretched to fill the evening and that the same expressions of sadness and dismay keep recurring. However, the individual numbers are nearly all short, and each of them is very good, so it is worth putting up with the monotony.

This production has been carefully prepared. The cast is excellent. Dorothea Röschman in the title role has a beautiful creamy voice and no lack of power – in fact I thought her ‘Divinités du Styx,’ the best-known number in the score, was almost too powerful and I preferred her singing of some of the other arias, particularly ‘Malgrè moi, mon faible coeur.’ It’s not her fault that she does not look the part. As Admète, Charles Castronovo is thoroughly convincing. He does not appear until the second act, but his singing is so expressive and attractive and his presence so commanding that it was a pleasure to see and hear him. Michael Nagy sang both the high priest of Apollon (Apollo) and Hercule with distinction. The other parts are all small, but well taken, and this includes the soloists from the chorus. The chorus is excellent and Manacorda conducts with verve.

The set is simple, with no change except for lurid lighting at the back when we are at the entrance to Hades. The costumes are loose linen clothes in a variety of styles and periods. This is generally acceptable but that for the god Apollon was absurd. So was that for Hercule, though I suppose we could not expect the lion skin and the club, his traditional attributes. On the other hand, the appearance of black-clad people on stilts as we approach Hades was suitably disturbing.

The particular feature of this production, and what will decide the potential buyer whether it appeals, is the large part given to the visiting ballet group, the Compagnie Eastman of Antwerp. The conductor Manacorda had the idea of increasing the dramatic interest by emphasizing and indeed expanding the role of the ballets. Instead of confining the dancers to the episodes specifically intended for them he has them present nearly continuously, providing a danced accompaniment to, and commentary on, the action and text. Their dance style is not that of classical ballet, which was anyway largely developed in the nineteenth century in Russia, but incorporates many newer techniques including break dancing. The problem is that the commentary they provide I find is often unnecessary, unwanted and distracting and some of their movements seem distinctly ungainly. However, the production got good reviews and many people like the dancing.

The sound and picture quality are fine. The disc comes with a useful booklet, with full tracking details and a short note on the production, but no biographies. Subtitles are available in five languages. The only other DVD of Alceste I could find is of a Stuttgart production of 2006, which updates the action to the twentyfirst century. So, if you can accept the enlarged role of the dancers, you may find this suits you.

Stephen Barber

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