Christoph Willibald Gluck - Alceste
Teatro Real, Madrid, 2014
Ivor Bolton, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Angela Denoke, Paul Groves, Willard White, Magnus Staveland, Thomas Oliemans, Isaac Galán, Fernando Radó, María Miró, Rodrigo Álvarez
ARTE Concert - 7 March 2014
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. That's the principal behind Gluck's reformist operas, reducing the stories and the nature of operatic expression to their dramatic essence, without over-elaboration or ornamentation. It's also the case this time (mostly) with director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his production of Gluck's Alceste for the Teatro Real in Madrid, one of the final productions under the artistic direction of the late Gérard Mortier. Gluck's reform operas are not puritan or spartan, but they provide a strong musical and dramatic framework for creative artists to work with and that is what is largely achieved here.
For Warlikowski, the simple question that needs to be asked when approaching an ancient drama like Alceste is what is it essentially about. For the director it's "the most philosophical story ever written" that confronts the question "could you die for someone?". It's also a royal family drama. Taking that as a starting point and thinking of it in terms of how that story has modern-day universal relevance, it seems obvious to think of Princess Diana and the impact of her death, but can a modern-day tabloid story really be considered to be comparable with ancient mythology?
Surprisingly, by getting right back to the essence of what Alceste is all about, and bringing a strong artistic and creative impulse to bear upon the work, Warlikowski is able to make the parallel meaningful. Typically, the director sets the tone and lays out his ideas in a prologue before the opera starts. This time it involves a five-minute film that shows Angela Denoke's Alceste being interviewed Princess Diana-style, where she covers many of the same issues and problems revealed in TV interviews with Diana. In it, she frankly discusses the difficulties of being in the public eye, of being unable to cope, of her post-natal depression and her rumoured suicide attempts.
That might seem like it has little to do with Alceste offering her own life in sacrifice to Apollo in exchange for her husband King Admeto who has just died, but it does provide us with some kind of background character detail that is credible for someone in her position which may be relevant as far as understanding the decision she has taken. Controversially, Warlikowski also creates entirely new dialogues (in English) to fill out the kind of anguish, confusion and uncertainty Alceste feels and reveal how it tears at family bonds. The director even introduces Admeto's father as a speaking character, and if the dialogue doesn't really carry the same kind of poetic force as Gluck's score, the purpose is clear and no less effective.
It's perhaps not so clear from the set design, but the effectiveness of the treatment is evident from the powerful pay-off in the finale. The stage and set design are of course not exactly what you would expect for Alceste, Act I taking place at a hospital, while Act III is set in a morgue rather than in Hell. That, as you might also expect, is actually the least of Warlikowski's conceits, the director even introducing a gypsy dance for no discernible reason, but much of the strangeness can be related to the state of mind of an Alceste who wanders around in a daze, more suicidal in her grief than sacrificial. Hercules however is fairly bonkers as well here. The conclusion however, a wheelchair-bound locked-in Alceste with husband and children presenting a distorted view of "happy families" is however utterly devastating, its bleak realistic view contrasting with the (forced) happy end of Gluck's music.
Warlikowski isn't afraid to confront such questions and work with the score in this way, making full use of the dance music not for ballets but to play out the dramatic setting he has imposed on the opera. Unfortunately, the performances in this production aren't quite up to the vision of the director. Ivor Bolton conducts the 1776 Paris version of the work well enough, but I'm not convinced that the Madrid orchestra really have the precision and rhythm to hold down and bring out the dynamic of the score. The timing of the chorus also occasionally seems to be out of step with the music. Musically, Alceste is one of Gluck's finest pieces, and Bolton keeps the flow well in line with Warlikowski's dramatic focus on an Alceste who is caught up in a nightmare of grief and breakdown.
This Alceste therefore needs to be a strong actress, and Angela Denoke brings a great dramatic intensity to the role. The Baroque dramatic soprano range isn't always within her comfort zone, she's inconsistent and can sound shrill when striving to reach and hold the high notes, but there's no question she gives it everything. The same could be said about Willard White as the Grand Priest and Thanatos, not always secure on the lower register, but he's a strong presence nonetheless. Paul Groves however was a strong and lyrical Admeto, equally intense on a dramatic level alongside Denoke.
Links: ARTE Concert