Gluck’s Alceste is not as well known as Orfeo ed Eurydice or the Iphigénie operas but in some ways it’s an even better example of what Gluck meant by “reform”. It’s simple, restrained and elegant. The plot has some similarities with Orfeo. The good king of Thessaly, Admète, is doomed to die unless someone else volunteers in his place. Naturally enough, this being opera, his wife Alceste volunteers. There is much dignified lamenting. She descends to Hades. Husband and wife reproach each other for their selfishness in being the one to die. Hercules shows up and, in gratitude for earlier hospitality, saves the day. There is (dignified) rejoicing. It;s an easy score to listen to with plenty of good tunes but no blockbuster, memorable, numbers.
Robert Wilson’s 2000 production at the Châtelet in Paris really takes the aesthetic of the music and runs with it. The stage is mostly empty. Characters and dancers alike wear most austere costumes. There is a lot of “baroque” gesture. It’s even more stylized than Opera Atelier and has hints of Egyptian wall paintings and carvings in it. At one point I was even wondering whether Wilson was alluding to Black Athena. Also everything is very dark and very blue. In comparison with Robert Carsen’s Gluck productions even, this is stark.
The performances are very good. The title role is sung by Anne-Sofie von Otter and she is the epitome of dignity and style creating a sympathetic, if stiff, portrait of the dutiful queen. Her singing too is restrained perfection. Paul Groves is more overtly demonstrative as Admète. It’s a strongly characterised and elegantly sung effort. Dietrich Henschel is a stand out as the High Priest and Hercules. He’s a strong singer and, as Hercules, manages to inject something a bit more red blooded into the piece. John Eliot Gardner conducts with his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir. They do what they do which is play with great skill and elegance. There are a couple of points where the unvalved brass manages to inject a note of welcome vulgarity but mostly it’s all of a piece with the overall aesthetic.
Brian Large does a decent job of filming a dark and slow moving production. There are some odd choices of shot, such as a long close up of a projected spinning cube but mostly it’s perfectly OK. DVD picture quality is pushed to the limit by this sort of production but it’s OK. The sound (DTS 5.0; LPCM stereo also an option) is clear and well balanced. There’s no booklet and the only extras asre a show reel of mostly MetHD extracts. It’s a pity. This would be a good disk to have more information on. There are English, French and German subtitles.
I think Gluck would have highly approved of this production and performance. Rameau and Mozart though would probably have been sitting at the back sniggering and making fart jokes.