Royal Opera House Heritage Series – Alceste

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Gluck
Alceste – Tragédie-opéra in three acts to a libretto by Louis du Roullet after Ranieri de’ Calzabigi [1776 Paris version; sung in French]

Admète – Robert Tear
Alceste – Janet Baker
Le Grand Prêtre / Un Dieu infernal – John Shirley-Quirk
Évandre – Maldwyn Davies
Le Héraut / Le Dieu Apollon – Philip Gelling
Le Dieu Hercule – Jonathan Summers
Coryphées – Elaine Mary Hall, Janice Hooper-Roe, Mark Curtis & Matthew Best
L’Oracle – Matthew Best

The Royal Opera Chorus

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House [Maurits Sillem – harpsichord continuo]
Sir Charles Mackerras

John Copley – Director

Recorded 12 December 1981 at The Royal Opera House, London


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: June 2008
CD No: ROYAL OPERA HOUSE HERITAGE SERIES ROHS010 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 27 minutes

 

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Listening to this performance captured on the wing brought two regrets. The first was that I wished I’d got heavily ‘into opera’ just a year or so earlier than I did – as I might then have been able to have caught this production in the theatre. Secondly, I wish that more opera-houses would stage Gluck – especially if they did so in accounts as stylish and exciting as this. However, Gluck operas, other than “Orfeo ed Eurydice” and the occasional “Iphigénie en Tauride”, remain rarities.

The recording originates from a BBC broadcast and is presented in clean stereo sound (slightly over-processed) albeit in a slightly dry acoustic. Only rarely do the solo voices drift out of focus but then only momentarily, and there is surprisingly little obtrusive stage-noise, even in the dance scenes.

From the brooding overture depicting the mood in Thebes as Kind Admète draws near his death, one is aware that this is a stylish, authentic and committed account of the score conducted by (the then not-knighted) Charles Mackerras. The Orchestra plays with warmth, keen articulation and sensitivity to mood – even within the pantomime, ballet and divertissement sections; and there is much characterful woodwind-playing and relish of Gluck’s sprightly rhythms and tunefulness. Mention should also be made of Maurits Sillem who provided a noticeable but unpretentious continuo.

The raison d’être of this issue is the assumption of the title role by the great Janet Baker – and really no other epithet will do. This was one of three staged productions she gave in as her farewell to the operatic stage. That she chose two Gluck roles (the other was Orfeo at Glyndebourne) was interesting in itself.

On the evidence of this rendition she left the stage when her voice was in its prime and when her interpretative powers were at their height. From her first entrance her way of colouring the voice to bring out the nuance of text and the motivation and inner turmoil of this heroine is unmistakably the work of a superior artist: just listen to Alceste’s scena in the penultimate scene of Act One, and the following scene with the High Priest, to hear how Alceste’s dilemma is presented in uncompromising terms. It was hard to imagine this dramatic tension could be maintained – but with Baker being more than equal to the fearsome technical demands of this long and taxing role such fears were swiftly allayed; her rich and expressive voice rings out securely.

As Alceste’s husband, Admète, Robert Tear turns in a performance that in sheer intensity proves the ideal match for Dame Janet. The duet where the couple grow to realise the consequences of Alceste’s sacrifice is by turns tender on her part and angry and painful on his. That Tear was apparently by this performance only just recovering from a severe throat infection makes this interpretation of this high-lying role the more remarkable.

In the supporting roles there is the sort of line-up that only a Company with a secure house-ensemble could provide. Notable here are John Shirley-Quirk’s authoritative High Priest sounding appropriately inspired by his gods to demand the human sacrifice to which Alceste submits; Jonathan Summers who makes much of Hercule despite the character’s late appearance; and Philip Gelling likewise as Apollo. It is also interesting to note (then) younger singers such as Maldwyn Davies and Matthew Best making an impact in the smaller roles, Davies is a beautifully lyrical Évandre and Best makes an appropriately chilling oracle. Mention should also be made of the Chorus, an important mass commentator in Gluck opera. On this evidence these singers were on lusty form that night, not always perfectly precise but always committed.

The audience reaction is enthusiastic and there is no evidence of background restlessness. So Gluck can work in the theatre!

The set comes handsomely packaged, the booklet including some good black-and-white pictures of the performers in the production. There is an interesting, informative and fulsome programme note by Rodney Milnes in which he states that it is a privilege to have this performance available. Is this critical gush? No! I concur absolutely. There are other recordings of Alceste – but I know which one I now want to listen to.

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