Alceste is the short and sombre story of a wife who gives her life to save that of her husband, King Admète of Thessaly, a deed which ultimately convinces the gods to reprieve both of them. Gluck, hoping to avoid the over-decorated vocal style then in vogue, set this plot to unadorned vocal lines to give depth to the underlying emotions. When this work premièred in Vienna in 1767, the reactions were mixed, Leopold Mozart calling it a “requiem”. The opera was not a great success until a thoroughly reworked version with a libretto in French premièred in Paris in 1776. This French-language Alceste has now been given at the Staatsoper for the first time.
The Staatsoper opted for a rather safe approach to modern direction with a production field-tested in Aix-en-Provence and Copenhagen, but this was not enthusiastically received in Vienna: the Queen of Thessaly appears on the cover of the program in a white cotton nightshirt and oversized woollen socks, and at once the heart sinks.
Christof Loy’s concept is both to separate and to connect the private and public suffering of the royal family through huge sliding doors that divide the stage. The front is an empty space, leaving ample room for the chorus scenes so important in Gluck’s “reform” operas, while the backdrop represents a bourgeois home where the deathbeds of Admète and his wife remain hidden from a curious public. This makes sense, as does portraying Alceste as a mother to her people; but how the latter is put into practice doesn’t fully convince: the chorus is costumed as early 20th-century children (sailor suits, knickerbockers, party dresses) and directed to behave as such (pulling each other’s hair or stomping their feet like infants). Comic relief in the moribund atmosphere is welcome, but turning ritual prayer into a kindergarten outing pushes the conceit a little far. Another example for this was the entrance of the infernal deity Charon harnessed like a star castrato out of Handel’s Haymarket Theatre. Other than that, things came together in Act III, where Dirk Becker’s sliding doors opened to a cabinet full of eerie dolls representing an underworld full of spirits.
Véronique Gens is a specialist in the tragic heroines of early opera and she didn’t disappoint in her house debut – Alceste fits her like a glove, her clarity of tone and intonation being especially pleasing. The crinkled nightshirt for her deathbed scene aside, she was given decent long dresses by costume designer Ursula Renzenbrink.
The most important part next to the title role was taken on by the Gustav Mahler Chor as the people of Thessaly – or, in this production, as the children who mature in a crisis and learn to overcome their fear of religious authorities. Constant movement that includes singing while lying flat on the stomach provides a lot of exercise. Luckily, Thomas Wilhelm’s sophisticated choreography ensures that this busy concept (continuous action on stage being a cornerstone of Gluck’s operatic reform) doesn’t turn out chaotic, but appears natural.
One would have wished Joseph Kaiser (Admète) in better form in his house debut; his voice sounded strained, but gradually improved to make some impression in the finale. Adam Plachetka as Hercule and Clemens Unterreiner in a double role as Apollo’s high priest and an infernal deity delivered strong performances.
In the pit, Ivor Bolton conducted the Freiburger Barockorchester impeccably and with much energy, albeit a bit fast for the epic overture, the best-known piece from the score after Alceste’s “Divinités du Styx”. Impurities in the trumpets aside, the orchestra gave an excellent performance with the strings delivering buttery, almost harp-like pizzicati.
Alceste is full of lovely music, but poses a challenge to any director. The current production is a laudable effort, but not yet one to make time fly by.