OPERA NEWS - Alceste
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GLUCK: Alceste

spacer Denoke; Groves, Staveland, Oliemans, White; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real, Bolton. Production: Warlikowski. EuroArts 3074974 (Blu-ray), 3075978 (DVD), 150 mins., subtitled

Recordings Alceste DVD Cover 815

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2014 production from Madrid’s Teatro Real seems less like a presentation of Gluck’s work than a postmodern theater piece that includes the opera’s score as one of its elements. It begins not with music but with a taped interview between the heroine (Angela Denoke) and a David Frost-like interviewer. She’s a stylish, regally coiffed blonde, and her woes are those of the late Princess Diana. Her marriage to King Admète has disintegrated; she has thoughts of suicide; the royal family sees her as a threat. During the overture, when we first see the queen in the flesh, she is a wreck, staggering under the weight of her own despair. Given that at this point the opera has started in earnest, I assumed that the cause of her distress was that of Gluck’s heroine — the mortal illness of her husband, whom she will save by offering herself as a sacrifice to the gods. But it did make me wonder what the hell the TV prologue had been about. I was further puzzled when, on the verge of death in Act II, Alceste ended up in a make-out session with the courtier Évandre. 

It was only when I read the DVD booklet that I understood. “Alcestis kills herself to escape a broken marriage from which she can see no other way out.” Oh. One thing that could be said in this scenario’s favor: it gives the singers something to play. The steady nobility of purpose of both Alceste and Admète hardly corresponds to our current expectations for dramatic conflict; it must be hard to keep them from turning into singing statues. But this particular directorial approach is not an effective solution. Nothing in the opera’s text supports the tactic, and the music emphatically contradicts it: Gluck gives us nobility and grandeur where Warlikowski wants us to see soul-consuming neurosis. 

Played out in Małgorzata Szcze¸s΄niak’s handsome, chilly sets, much of the action of this Alceste is impenetrable. I refer not only to the reworking of the heroine’s motivation but to the people of Pherae, who here are patients in a hospital ward, singing from their cots, and to the gates of Hades — a morgue where the cadavers rise up, twitching, to have sex and smoke cigarettes. Hercule is a buffoon who slips in his own shaving cream, then later, announcing the royal couple’s salvation, shows up in clown face. Warlikowski has interpolated two dialogue scenes (in English, for some reason). In one, Admète and his father, an added character, have a bitter fight; in the other, the infernal deity Thanatos excoriates Hercule as a child-killer. Neither one helps explicate Warlikowski’s interpretation, but they both add to the air of sneering nastiness.

The performance, which uses Gluck’s 1776 French revision of his 1767 Italian work, is not a success from a musical standpoint. Whether due to the disc’s engineering or to interpretive proclivity, Ivor Bolton’s reading proceeds timidly, with little rhythmic contour. It’s almost as if he didn’t want the music to assert itself and contradict the bizarre physical presentation. Angela Denoke, in the title role, displays her brilliance as a physical performer; despite the meretriciousness of the director’s interpretation, her fervent embodiment of it is both riveting and valiant. But she doesn’t sound good: her tone is uncentered and sour, and she seems unable to summon in French the alacrity of attack that so distinguishes her work in German. The performance finds Paul Groves as Admète in patchy voice, especially on top. (Physically he’s a near-double for Downton Abbey’s nobly intentioned, sometimes obtuse Lord Grantham — an intended effect?) Willard White brings unquestionable authority but a frayed instrument to the dual role of the priest of Apollo and Thanatos. Thomas Oliemans doesn’t summon the clarion vocal strength you’d expect from an Hercule — but in this production, why would he? 

It should be noted that the stagingwas commissioned by Gerard Mortier, then artistic advisor to Teatro Real, as a kind of valedictory statement: the Belgian impresario died less than two weeks after its opening. Always the provocateur, Mortier may well have welcomed the torrent of booing that greets the director at curtain call. I must admit I did too, although certainly not because it reveals the audacity of Warlikowski’s vision. Instead, I was relieved to discover the Real audience was as frustrated as I was by this Alceste. spacer

FRED COHN

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