The first time I saw a DVD recording of Gluck’s Alceste I put my reaction of utter tedium down to Robert Wilson’s highly stylized and static production. This time I looked at a production, recorded at Staatsoper Stuttgart in 2006, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Marabito, who did a rather good job on the rather dreary La Somnambula, expecting rather more. Actually I think they have some good ideas but they can’t obscure the fact that this is basically a very dull opera.
How is it dull? Well the plot doesn’t help. Act 1 takes nearly an hour to explain that Admète, the beloved king of Thessaly must die unless someone volunteers to take his place. That, natch, turns out to be his wife Alceste. At the end of the act she dies. Then she mysteriously reappears at the beginning of Act 2. Apparently this is explained in the Vienna version as her cutting a one day to say farewell deal with the infernal deities. This scene is cut in the Paris version (used here) so Act 2 is a largely inexplicable “after you Claude” duet in which the two spouses each claim that life without the other is meaningless so they ought to be the one to die. This takes the best part of an hour too. Act 3 is a bit livelier as Hercules shows up and even Gluck can’t make Hell completely boring, but even here there is another whole scene in which Alceste and Admète reprise Act 2. Eventually Apollo shows up as a deus ex machina (so much for reform opera) and sets all to rights. Then there’s a ten minute chaconne to conclude. The music doesn’t help. There are a couple of good numbers; notably Divinités du Styx, but the rest of the time it’s that other tune Gluck wrote. Ad infinitum.
Wieler and Morabito do try but not with any great success. They give the piece a modern setting with semi abstract modernistic sets. There are TV monitors showing the celeb king. Alceste swallows a lot of pills at the end of Act 1. The “infernal deities” occupy a sort of control room from which they determine fates. Alceste’s sons (in bright orange wigs) add a bit of interest. Hercules wearing a sort of death’s head ninja number raids the control room. There’s a sense of a performance within a performance. The chorus are a choir with a conductor. There are musicians on stage. Other than that though there are a lot of folding chairs and a lot of people wandering around looking desolate. It’s a bit like Claus Guth’s Messiah without the corpse to liven things up. The dance numbers are played in full but with pantomime not dance. This makes the final ten minutes among the most boring in opera history.
The performances, to be fair, are decidedly good. Catherine Nagelstad is a bit of an Alceste specialist and she can certainly sing the music. Some of her singing is quite lovely. Donald Kaasch is Admète and he has a pleasant bright tenor. Maybe he hams it up a bit at times but who can blame him. Johan Rydh sounds authoritative as the High Priest and Thanatos and glowers rather well. Michael Ebbecke injects some life and a bit of much needed humour too as Hercules. The house orchestra and chorus are just fine and Constantine Carydis conducts elegantly. I think I prefer period brass though to more dulcet tones of the Stuttgart orchestra. Some honking is needed for the proper infernal effect in Act 3.
The video direction by Nele Münchmeyer is unobtrusive. Picture quality is standard DVD which is just about OK as most of the scenes are well lit. The only sound option is LPCM stereo and it’s adequate but no more. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a long and useful essay, artist bios and a track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
If you must have a recording of Alceste then this is at least a different approach to Wilson’s Paris recording. Personally, I can’t see watching either of them again.