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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alceste brought back from the dead, 27 Oct 2002
This review is from: Gluck: Alceste (Audio CD)
The Gluck revival continues to gain in strength with this striking new recording of his tragic opera "Alceste" from John Eliot Gardiner. Gluck wrote the original, Italian version of "Alceste" in 1767 after his first and most famous reform opera, "Orfeo ed Euridice". He later revised it in a version for the French stage in 1776. The result - the score recorded here- is a distinct improvement all round. Gluck cut much of the repetition that made the original version so static (it was accused of being like 'a funeral in three acts') and generally sharpened up the musical drama. Yet "Alceste", even in this superior version, has never achieved the popularity of "Orfeo", despite the fact it was allegedly the favourite opera of Berlioz, Gluck's greatest admirer. As Gardiner says in the booklet: " 'Alceste' belongs to the category of operas that are famous but hardly known."
The plots of "Orfeo" and "Alceste" are in fact strikingly similar. Both involve the protagonists risking their lives to save their spouses from death. In "Orfeo", Orpheus loses his wife and has to descend the Underworld to rescue her. In "Alceste", Admetus, King of Thessaly is dying. The gods promise to save his life if anyone is willing to take his place. His courageous wife, Alcestis, volunteers. But the story ends happily as she is snatched from the jaws of death by the hero Hercules. The Alcestis myth has been nowhere near as popular with composers as the Orpheus story. This is mainly due to the fact that Orpheus, as the god of music, provided composers ample opportunity to show off their skills. In fact I can only think of two other Alcestis operas: Lully's "Alceste" (1674) and Handel's "Admeto" (1727). Those two operas, as was the fashion in the Baroque, severely complicated the basic story by the addition of extra characters and subplots. Gluck's drama is astonishingly simple and direct. Though it has plot similarities with "Orfeo", the form and mood are totally different. "Alceste" is very French with its chorus and dance ensembles. The drama is more compact than "Orfeo", the orchestration more sombre. There are no beautiful Elysian fields for Alcestis. The scene when she waits to be sacrificed to the gods of the underworld in the growing twilight is both terrifying and moving in a way that prefigures early Romanticism.
Nevertheless, perhaps partly because of its generally dark scoring and dramatic concentration, "Alceste" does run the risk of monotony in the wrong hands. The problem with its lack of popularity might have been the fact that previous recordings have done little to dispel the idea, as the Penguin Guide puts it, that in Gluck 'beautiful' means 'boring'. Gluck is seen as Neo-Classical so his operas are often performed as if they were as cold as lifeless as Neo-Classical statues. As Gardiner realizes, the secret of Gluck's reforms was simple: he wanted to make opera dramatic once more. Gardiner's conducting is anything but tame. He pays great attention to every orchestral detail to prevent the merest hint of monotony. You certainly won't fall asleep during this performance. Some reviewers, such as the 'Gramophone' critic Stanley Sadie, used to the more sedate Gluck performing tradition, have blanched at this, but I love it. It is certainly far superior to the overpraised Naxos recording of the Italian version under Arnold Oestman. But perhaps the true test of this opera is Alceste herself. Teresa Ringholtz is by far the best thing about the Oestman recording. She has a fine, delicate voice but she is no competition for Anne Sofie von Otter on Gardiner. Just compare them in the famous aria "Ombre,Larve"/"Ombres, Larves". Admittedly Ringholtz isn't helped by the lack of presence in the Naxos recording which sounds pallid and scratchy, almost mono. By contrast Gardiner's orchestra is blazingly present and von Otter matches his interpretation in power. She sounds almost like Beethoven's Leonore (and indeed the role of Alceste is a clear predecessor of the heroine of "Fidelio" who saves her husband from the living death of prison). Again compare the arias "Non, vi tormenti" (Italian version) with "Ah, divinites" (its French counterpart). Ringholtz is fragile and touching, von Otter is noble and utterly heartbreaking.
As for the other roles, Paul Groves makes a fine Admete in spite of his often uncertain French. He manages to make his character sound noble, rather than spineless, as is so often the case. Dieter Henschel sings both the High Priest and Hercules. He is rather more successful in the former role since his Hercules is good but not vocally muscular enough. But it is the heroine and the conductor who really count in this opera and von Otter and Gardiner are unbeatable. They have managed to transform this opera from one I left to gather dust on my shelves into one I listen to again and again.(Brys)
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