Thus spake Shaw, writing about Gluck towards the end of the 19th century. Shaw went on to allege that the musical culture of his time had not fully caught up with this great master and reformer of opera, and the very thoughtful and instructive essay that Gardiner contributes here suggests to me that there may still, in the third millennium, be a little catching up to do. Whatever one thinks of Gluck, either as a composer or as a musical dramatist or as an operatic rationalist and reformer, it seems to me that he was very clear-headed in one basic respect - he knew the difference between musical drama and musical tableau. Classical drama has an inherent tendency towards tableau, with its statues, white-robed women, prophets, deities and heroes. This still tempts producers of Gluck's operas into statuesque stagings with a certain immobility about them. I don't necessarily find fault with this, what I do suggest is that Gluck's operas can't all be viewed in the same way. Even when the libretto is, like that of Armide, an uneasy combination of the dramatic with the statuesque, Gluck is always clear in his mind which mode he is operating in. When it comes to Alceste, the book of the opera is clearly dramatic all the way through. Gluck can see this, and Gardiner's remarks as well as his direction suggest to me that he sees it this way too.
This basic view underlies the way I hear this performance. Gardiner's approach seems to me thoroughly considered and consistent, and one of the things that I like best about it is that I seem to be listening to not just Gluck the composer but Gluck the reformer. There is a great sense of dramatic pace about it all. Speeds are never allowed to drag, but the sense of pace is not a sense of rush either. It is more a sense of continuity, with no long silences between the numbers but overture leading to recitative leading to chorus leading to aria with a fluency that Wagner himself might have admired. Inevitably, there is a price to be paid for this, and how each of us responds to this approach will depend, I'd say, on whether we think the price worth it. The price is that the big set pieces (for which read arias to all intents here) are less highlighted than in other types of production. No doubt Jessye Norman and Nicolai Gedda `make more' of their big solos, and that is partly because they are given more of the `tableau' treatment. Whether one can have it both ways I would not like to try to say. What I will say is that I know Anne Sofie von Otter from her fine and spirited recitals of Schumann, Grieg and Chaminade. She is a powerful singer and a powerful personality, and if she doesn't attempt to be particularly dominant in this instance that makes perfect sense to me considering the role she is given to sing, which is not Clytemnestra or Medea but the devoted and submissive Alcestis. Furthermore, arias are not even particularly frequent in this opera until the third act, where they fit naturally into place as Alcestis and Admetus confront each other at the gates of Hades. In the earlier acts too many arias would have interrupted the dramatic flow, and I hear the way von Otter interprets her role as being part and parcel of Gardiner's overall concept.
Whether or not this is the way one likes it, it would be hard to accuse this production of inconsistency. Paul Groves is a lightish tenor rather than a Heldentenor, and that, I suppose, is likely another reason for the way von Otter goes about her contribution. One would know he was not French, but he handles that aspect of the matter not badly. In general the singing is extremely distinct and professional, and this is particularly important in the case of the chorus, whose part is easily as big as that of either of the principals. There are some very effective `whispers' from the chorus of citizens at one point, and the divinities of the Styx are as effective as Gluck allows them to be. I certainly feel he should have made more effort here - to argue, as apparently he did, that nobody knows what the gods of the underworld sound like is just flannel: they are totally imaginary beings anyway, and Gluck might have exerted his own imagination.
Editorially, I think the production is excellent. Patricia Howard contributes a scholarly but readable preface, and Gardiner himself is absolutely fascinating as he takes us through the practical and conceptual issues surrounding the performance. Gluck was emphatically better at the vision-thing than he was at the fine detail. His autograph scores are a frightful mess, an absolute dog's dinner, and I appreciate Gardiner's candour in letting us into his decision processes for dealing with the ambiguities and other shortcomings. In particular he gives proper recognition to the loving and tactful editorial suggestions made by Berlioz all that time ago. The French text is given both in full and in summary and translated into both English and German, and there is a synopsis of the plot. I did not read the English version in full, but as much of it as I did look at gave me no problems.
A decision on the right Alceste for each of us is thus not any straightforward matter. So far as I can tell, there is no getting away from taking some kind of intellectual view as to how the work should be performed. Gardiner has not shirked this, and I have tried not to misrepresent his intentions. This is not the kind of Gluck production I learned to love when I was younger, but our understanding of what made him the great master he is continues to develop and advance, and I appreciate what Gardiner has done for us in this regard.