Aristotle's idealized vision of Athenian tragedy - a supreme art form that located the political community in its existential map - has captivated artists and audiences from many eras. Since Greek tragedy's artistic death, opera has been the most ambitious in its struggle to revive this medium of religious-like communication, a fascinating story in which Gluck has a chapter of his own. Alceste is the most programmatic example of his quest for purer expression and deeper meaning. All its elements show a conscious effort to recreate the tragic origins of opera: its staunch dramatic unity, the austere musical form, the use of the chorus as a fundamental part of the story and, above all, its anachronistic but devoted adaptation of Euripides' tragedy. A modern performance of Alceste is thus an opportunity to reinstate the bonds between opera and tragedy. In this new production for the Teatro Real, Krzysztof Warlikowski accepted the challenge and almost lived up to the high expectations created in his previous works on this subject (notably Krol Roger).

Angela Denoke (Alceste) © Javier del Real
Angela Denoke (Alceste)
© Javier del Real

Alceste is a melancholy heroine. Confronted with the idea of life without her husband Admète, condemned to death by Artemis' wrath, she offers her life in exchange for his. However, the music used by Gluck to portray this fearless deed is almost always in the minor key, moving to compassion rather than to admiration. No wonder her sacrifice has been traditionally regarded as the utmost feat of submissive fidelity. This paradox, especially stark in the French version of the opera performed here, provides a fertile ground for modern interpreters of the work, who are forced to make hard artistic choices: how to revive the tragic ferocity of Alceste's sacrifice without betraying the stern spirit of Gluck's music? Is Alceste the last tragic heroine or the first truly Romantic character? If not out of self-destructive, pre-Wagnerian love, why does Alceste decide to die? Warlikowski solves the dilemma by shying away from any Romantic hyperbole and offering a multilayered, postmodern revision of the original material.

Before the music starts, we see soprano Angela Denoke on a big screen, impersonating Princess Diana in a fake interview filmed in the glossy halls of the Teatro Real. From the first moment, Warlikowski uses a well known popular icon to drag the audience into a two-way process of dramatic exploration: the old and the new Alceste meet on stage to create a new tragic character. This Alceste is a woman who loves Évandre, her husband's best friend, and who feels trapped and out of place in a royal family whose values she does not share. Her sacrifice is thus a way of saving an institution for which she was not prepared and which could be harmed by her deceit. Her voluntary descent into the abyss is then a silent, radical evasion, as well as a heroic act of self-consciousness. In Act III, where Warlikowski's direction is at its best, Alceste is unwillingly brought back to life by Hercules, a trembling hero, whose great achievement is reduced to a sadistic farce. Devastated by her failure, Alceste vegetates in a wheelchair, surrounded by a ghastly postcard of domestic happiness. This rebellion against Gluck's deus ex machina happy ending is, above all, a brilliant restoration of the spirit of tragedy: Alceste's hubris - her desire to defy the gods' will and the rules of nature - is punished with a crueller version of the prison from which she tried to escape.

Alceste © Javier del Real
Alceste
© Javier del Real

Unfortunately, the inspiring staging was not matched by the musical performance. Ivor Bolton, recently appointed as the new musical director of the Teatro Real, failed to make a promising start. The orchestra sounded polished and controlled, but the interpretation lacked contrast and agility, which made Gluck's brilliant score sound dull and distant at times. Angela Denoke is hardly a natural choice for singing the part of Alceste. This extraordinarily talented soprano has built a fascinating career based on 19th and 20th century roles for dramatic soprano, thanks to a rich and otherworldly voice and to a magnetic stage presence. However, she proved unable to deliver the simplest agilities and her unsatisfactory diction hobbled her entire performance. She had some good moments and showed an unbreakable commitment to the stage direction, but this could not make up for what may well be considered miscasting.

Paul Groves has been a fine interpreter of tenor roles from Gluck's and Mozart's operas for years. His elegant style, the fiery accent and the correct French pronunciation of his first Admète, performed 15 years ago, are still there, but he has lost control of the highest part of his register, which now sounds opaque and strained. Willard White, whose attractive bass-baritone voice is still, at 67, healthy and fresh, was an impressive priest, and Magnus Staveland and Thomas Oliemans proved solid choices for the roles of Évandre and Hercules.

With this new production, Warlikowski has proved once again that the conception of opera as tragedy, chimerical though it may be, is one of the most fruitful and ambitious evolutions of this captivating art.