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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Alceste'

Christine Brewer (Alceste, front) and cast in Alceste, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
At the start of my meeting with Charles MacKay, General Director of Santa Fe Opera (interview forthcoming), I joked that it would be fine with me if the company replaced its annual tradition of a Mozart opera with an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) instead. We have had precious few opportunities to review Gluck's operas over the years, on stage or otherwise, but his operas are not only very important in the history of the genre's development -- his reform-minded ideas about opera were a major influence on Wagner, for example -- but also universally beautiful. Prior to this year's production of Alceste, heard on Wednesday night, Santa Fe Opera has mounted only one of Gluck's operas (Orfeo ed Euridice, 1990). During our interview, MacKay told me that soprano Christine Brewer has been talking to him about the possibility of singing in a production of Alceste for some ten years at Opera Theater of St. Louis. MacKay, who cast Brewer in her first solo role when he was general director of OTSL, was only too happy to be able to help make it happen in Santa Fe.

Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de Calzabigi (1714-1795) -- a composer-librettist partnership on par with Mozart-Da Ponte or Strauss-Von Hoffmannsthal -- aimed to undo the anti-dramatic conventions of opera seria, set in place largely by Metastasio. Their reform has its roots in the academic origins of opera, the attempted recreation of ancient Greek tragedy. For that reason Gluck's operas lend themselves well to a sort of ritual staging, shown so effectively in Robert Wilson's gestural production of Orphée et Eurydice. Director Francisco Negrin went in a similar direction, setting his Santa Fe Alceste in a Thessaly of barren stone walls, haunted by masked, demon-like immortals (sets and costumes by Louis Désiré). In front of a temple dominated by the obsessive image of a large, all-seeing eye, the chorus commented on the action, making stylized emotional gestures right out of the Peter Sellars playbook (Mr. Roboto movements by Spanish choreographer Ana Yepes). The choreography was a mixture of classical ballet and the jerky blockiness and male-female inversions reminiscent of Mark Morris.

Tom Corbeil (Oracle, left), Matthew Morris (Apollo, top), and Christine Brewer (Alceste, right) in Alceste, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
The mythological story that underlies Calzabigi's original Italian libretto was drawn from the play Alcestis by Euripides. It concerns one of the many miracles accomplished by Hercules (on the way to his eighth official labor), in which he helped to rescue Alcestis, the virtuous wife of Admetus, from the underworld, where she had gone by choice, sacrificing her life for husband's. The libretto's happy ending, by which Alcestis and Admetus are made immortal as a model of perfect marital love, is undone by Negrin's staging. The powers of the underworld, portrayed by Yepes and six other dancers, plus the versatile Tom Corbeil, so inhuman in their white face makeup with blackened eyes, looked like members of the band KISS had been colonized by the Borg ("Resistance is futile -- prepare to rock and roll all night and party everyday"). They were omnipresent, moving menacingly during most of Alceste's arias and even claiming the mortals at the conclusion, by wrapping them in a black banner bearing the words "La mort." This is an unfortunate example of a director utterly missing the point: perfect fidelity is ennobled by the gods, not destroyed.

Christine Brewer, Alceste excerpts:
available at Amazon
Vol. 1

available at Amazon
Vol. 2

Alceste was the second of Gluck's reform operas (see this piano-vocal score), premiered in Vienna in 1767 and then adapted in a 1776 French version for Paris, where Gluck followed his former student, Marie-Antoinette, when she married King Louis XVI. This version, with a revised French libretto by Leblanc du Roullet and some major changes to the music, is generally thought to be better and is usually chosen for performance, although it is sometimes translated back into Italian. Santa Fe, quite wisely, chose the French version and kept it in French. In the modern era, Alceste's gorgeous arias have attracted many great sopranos who have used their star power to insist on stagings of the entire opera: Kirsten Flagstad, Maria Callas, Eileen Farrell, Jessye Norman, Catherine Naglestad, and most recently Deborah Voigt, who will probably star in her own staged production soon. Christine Brewer sang the role with vitality, warmth, and shattering power, a resplendent earth mother of opulent potency. It might not be the optimal type of voice for Gluck, but all of the details were there, with more than enough expansive élan on the high notes of Divinités du Styx and a luscious, long-breathed legato in the slower pieces.

Tom Corbeil (The Infernal God) and Paul Groves (Admète) in Alceste, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
Paul Groves was a heroic, dynamic Admète, in keeping with the optimal recording of the work, where he costars with Anne Sofie von Otter under the baton of John Eliot Gardiner. In addition to his strong, even singing, Groves even joined in with the dancers in Act II and was pinned to the wall by them in Act III. Among the supporting cast, apprentice singer Matthew Morris distinguished himself with a resonant baritone as Apollo, but bass Tom Corbeil stood out head and shoulders above the others, singing well in the roles of the Oracle and the Infernal God: until he sang, however, one easily mistook him for one of the dancers, so convincingly did he move like them, after some intense study with the choreographer. The French version eliminates the roles of Alceste's children (they became mute parts in Santa Fe) but adds parts for the high priest (a stately Nicholas Pallesen) and Hercules (a particularly strong Wayne Tigges).

Other Articles:

George Loomis, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 10)

Sarah Bryan Miller, Singer Christine Brewer is back from injury — and "rollin' " (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 9)

Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe Opera's 'Alceste' makes a simple story tiresome (Dallas Morning News, August 8)

Photo Journal: Christine Brewer is Alceste in Santa Fe (Playbill Arts, August 7)

Allan Kozinn, Heroines Sing Amid a Landscape of Boxes and an Egg of a Temple (New York Times, August 6)

John Stege, It's the Music (Santa Fe Reporter, August 5)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Fine cast, glitzy production provide mixed rewards in Santa Fe’s “Alceste” (Chicago Classical Review, August 3)

Craig Smith, Lustrous music saves 'Alceste' (Santa Fe New Mexican, August 2)
Romain Rolland noted in his essay on Gluck's Alceste that, after the failure of the Paris production, Gluck spoke with his friend, the printer Corancez, about his disappointment. Alceste, he said, is a work "stamped with the truth of nature," not the kind of work "to give momentary pleasure or to please because it is new. Time does not exist for it, [and it] has nothing whatever to do with fashion." Rolland also took note of the weakness of the third act (it repeats some of the earlier material and has a weak resolution), which was also borne out by the Santa Fe production. It is essential with Gluck's operas to keep the ballet music, and this staging found an ideal solution to that problem, if perhaps making the dancers too important. The orchestra played beautifully, although the slightly mushy beat of conductor Kenneth Montgomery, stronger in Mozart last year, made the coordination between pit and stage tricky. The musicians played on modern rather than historical instruments, although sounds of harpsichord and (was it?) transverse flute were heard. One could imagine stronger renditions of the work, but for me this was one of the highlights of the Santa Fe Opera season.

Santa Fe Opera's production of Alceste will be repeated only three more times, on August 10, 14, and 19.


Sarah said...

I enjoyed this production as well. Don't forget about the productions of "Iphigenie en Tauride" with Susan Graham in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York in 2006-07. Ms. Graham must be praised for advocating for Gluck here in the U.S.

Charles T. Downey said...

Right -- if you follow that link to our past posts on Gluck, you will get to an article about Susan Graham's Iphigénie en Tauride in Paris. Pretty controversial stuff (Gerard Mortier, of course). Anyone who helps to get more Gluck on the stage is OK by me.