This, the first complete recording of Gluck's original Italian version of "Alceste," is an excellent achievement.
Before this recording, I knew only the primary arias from the French "Alceste" recorded by Callas and Janet Baker. Both of these divas give an electrifying performance of "Divinites du Styx," the most familiar aria. Here, titled "Ombre, larve," the aria is simpler, less assured, and perhaps not as fully developed as the French revision. However, throughout the entire opera, the simplicity of line and the musical distillation of emotion which Gluck sought is supremely evident. To compare this work to the opera seria of Handel's time almost forty years earlier is to realize the true extent of Gluck's reforms.
The cast is, for the most part, excellent. Teresa Ringholz brings a lovely, rather soft-grained instrument to Alceste's music and sings with a firm line and dramatic commitment, if perhaps without the fire of a Callas or Baker. A fuller chest register would be an asset in this music, but that is a small point. She is quite good and dominates this set as she should. Justin Lavender here sounds a little unfocused and woolly, qualities I have not heard in him before, so I am willing to chalk it up to a peculiarity in the recorded sound. Other than that, he makes a fine Admeto. A couple of unsteady minor roles aside, the rest of the cast is very good.
Arnold Oestman leads the Drottningholm Orchestra and Chorus with style and excellent control. Everything is well-paced and the recitatives are lively and involving, never dull. Despite this being a live performance, the stage noises are almost nonexistant. Naxos has provided an English translation alongside the Italian libretto, and the cueing points are more than generous. While we are unlikely to have another recording of "Alceste" (French or Italian) anytime soon, I can't see this set being bettered. Tremendous value and an excellent buy. Don't miss it.