Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Christine Brewer, Paul Groves Lead Elegantly Sung “Alceste”: Santa Fe – August 1, 2009

August 3rd, 2009

ALCESTE REVIEW
Santa Fe Opera mounted Gluck’s “Alceste” as the occasion for the Santa Fe Opera debuts of Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer and of lyric tenor Paul Groves. Conducted by Irish conductor Kenneth Montgomery, a familiar face on the Santa Fe podium, the opera, that Gluck had revised for Paris in 1776, was presented in its French version.
Although Gluck set out to
the opening night performance was notable for the consistently high level of its singing. Brewer, who is one of the reigning Isoldes of our day, took on a role that Kirsten Flagstad, the most famous Isolde of the early mid-20th century recorded (in Italian).  Although in recent years voices of lighter weight (and lower register) have assayed this role, Brewer demonstrates that the role glistens when a high soprano voice that combines beauty with power takes it on.
It is the German repertory with which Brewer is associated, and has sung very little French opera. It is her accomplishments in Beethoven and Wagner that have built her world reputation, but she is convincing in this classical French role.
Groves has proved to be a master of the baroque tenor parts, and is the person many opera impresarios first think of when they wish to cast the lead tenor role in one of Gluck’s French masterpieces. Not only was he Admete in producer Robert Wilson’s production _________, but ten years ago, he recorded Admete in Conductor ____ Gardiner’s justly praised recording of the work.
All of the remaining roles are smaller, but every one was deserving of praise, which they will receive in the notes on the production below.
In the major Gluck operas there is a synthesis of vocal (soloist and choral) music, symphony and dance, that has rarely been achieved before or since. But to a great extent Gluck’s reforms were intended as reforms in the ways in which classical Greek drama should be made into operas.
But while Gluck assumed that opera going audiences in the 1770s would be well-versed in the stories of, say, Euripides and Sophocles, from the time of the operatic successes of his younger contemporary, Wolfgang Mozart (who as a pre-teen attended a performance of Gluck’s “Alceste”), Greek drama has not been the important source of operatic subject matter that it was in the 17th and first seven decades of the 18th century.
Thus, Gluck’s operas, even his great masterpieces, have become museum pieces (although I continue to make the point that the best museums contain priceless art. But the flow of music in these Gluck’s works is thoroughly absorbing and immensely theatrical. Passionate melodies
Enlivening these works in the 21st century has proven a welcome challenge
The opera was staged by Mexican director Francisco Negrin, whose work in previous Santa Fe seasons was also 18th century rarities – Mozart’s “Mitridate” (2001) and Handel’s “Agrippina” (2004). He collaborated with Spanish choreographer and dancer Ana Yepez and French set and costume designer Louis Desire, to present a fanciful . . .

Santa Fe Opera mounted Gluck’s “Alceste” as the occasion for the company debuts of two Americans who have achieved international success – Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer and lyric tenor Paul Groves. Conducted by Irish conductor Kenneth Montgomery, a familiar face on the Santa Fe podium, the opera – that Gluck had revised for Paris in 1776 – was presented in its French version.

Brewer, who is one of the reigning Isoldes of our day, took on a role that Kirsten Flagstad, the most famous Isolde of the early mid-20th century recorded (in Italian).  Although in recent years voices of lighter weight (and lower register) have assayed this role, Brewer demonstrates that the role glistens when a soprano voice that combines vocal beauty with power takes it on.

[Below: Christine Brewer is Alceste; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

It is the German repertory with which Brewer is associated, and she has sung very little French opera. It is her accomplishments in Beethoven and Wagner that have built her world reputation, but she is convincing in this classical French role.

(For this reviewer’s past comments on performances by Brewer, see: SF: Pamela Rosenberg Finale at final “Fidelio” – November 27, 2005 and The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006.)

Groves, who is perhaps best known for the Mozart tenor roles, has proven to be a master of earlier 18th century tenor parts also, and is the person many opera impresarios first think of when they wish to cast the lead tenor role in one of Gluck’s French masterpieces. A decade ago, when he was not so well known, Groves was chosen by Conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner to play Admete in a new Robert Wilson production of “Alceste”, celebrating the reopening the restored Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. That famous production is available in both CD and DVD recordings.

[Below: Paul Groves is Admete; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

All of the remaining roles are smaller, but every one was deserving of praise, which they will receive in the notes on the production below.

In the major Gluck operas there is a synthesis of vocal (soloist and choral) music, symphony and dance, that has rarely been achieved before or since. But to a great extent Gluck’s reforms were intended as reforms in the ways in which classical Greek drama should be made into operas.

But while Gluck assumed that opera going audiences in the 1770s would be well-versed in the stories of, say, Euripides and Sophocles, from the time of the operatic successes of his younger contemporary, Wolfgang Mozart (who as a pre-teen attended a performance of Gluck’s “Alceste”), Greek drama has not been the important source of operatic subject matter that it was in the 17th and first seven decades of the 18th century.

Thus, Gluck’s operas – even his great masterpieces – have become museum pieces (although I continue to make the point that the best museums contain priceless art). Enlivening these works in the 21st century has proven a welcome challenge. What should surprise audiences unfamiliar with these operas is what a wealth of material there is. The music in Gluck’s works is thoroughly absorbing and, despite an undeserved reputation for stodginess, is quite theatrical and imminently accessible to 21st century audiences.

Yet, although passionate melodies flow one after another, if it is to be performed as a staged opera, rather than a concert performance with soloists in evening clothes standing behind music stands, one must come to terms with the story Gluck intended us to experience as an integration of vocal and instrumental music and dance. Of course, one can go the way of some modern concept directors and pay no heed to the story at all, putting onstage whatever whimsy floats into their minds. But if it is to be only the music that one takes seriously, why not then just do the concert performance, and save the production costs?

One of the successful attempts to stage a French Gluck opera for 21st century audiences was that of Robert Carsen’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”, presented in San Francisco, Chicago and London with Groves in the role of Pylade. In that production, Carsen had the chorus sit in the orchestra pit, and the dancers perform onstage, not only performing the dramatic functions of the dancers, but assuming the dramatic functions of the chorus as well.  [For my review of this production, see:  Night at the Museum: “Iphigenie en Tauride” Springs to Life in S. F. – June 17, 2007.]

Although it proved to be an intriguing way to approach the elements of Gluck’s style, Carsen conceded any potential use of the movements of a costumed chorus to enhance the opera’s impact. The Santa Fe Opera’s production, on the other hand, went quite another way, jumbling the elements of soloists, chorus and dancers. Groves’ Admete dances, and dancers are included in the mass of choristers.

[Below: the dancers, as choreographed by Ana Yepes, sometimes are integrated into the chorus and sometimes perform apart from them; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Gluck’s storyline deals with humans living decent lives in their own villages, into which alien beings – the Greek god Apollo and the Divinities of the Styx – inject themselves seemingly capriciously (at least imposing requirements on the humans that are unfathomable under any rules of logic for which human beings, including the opera’s audience, are familiar).

The opera was staged by Mexican director Francisco Negrin, who in previous Santa Fe seasons also involved mounting 18th century rarities – Mozart’s “Mitridate” (2001) and Handel’s “Agrippina” (2004). He collaborated with Spanish choreographer and dancer Ana Yepes and French set and costume designer Louis Desire, to present two distinct worlds – the humans in their small village, and the alien immortals, who choose to terrorize the humans at will.

[Below: Creatures of the alien world, Apollo (Apprentice singer Matthew Morris, on top of sphere) and an infernal divinity (dancer-choreographer Ana Yepes); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Desire’s set was ingenious – opening like a giant bivalve to display a mountain village in its inner chambers, closing in such a way that its exterior became the underworld. Inside the village there was a portal to the other world, a sphere out of which a jagged piece had fallen. No one who is familiar with contemporary dramatic presentations of science fiction stories or with Japanese and Chinese theater would fail to mis-identify which characters were supposed to be the humans and which were the alien immortals.

Notes on the Performance

Montgomery led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in Gluck’s brilliant Ouverture. As it ends we hear the first lamentation of the Chorus, expressing sorrow at the impending death of their king. The chorus is dressed in black and utilizes choreographed hand gestures. Among its members are the dancers, who use the movements of modern dance to confirm their own mournfulness.

The Herald (Nicholas Pallesen) appears. Pallesen, who also performs the role of the Grand Priest in “Alceste” and the important comprimario role of the Baron Douphol in this season’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”, is one of several the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers who are cast in important secondary roles in this season’s operas.

Combining the roles of the Herald and Grand Priest (a human who interprets Apollo’s messages) gives Pallesen a substantial assignment, with only Alceste of the principals having more to sing in the first act. Pallesen’s is a major voice, executing both the Herald’s and the Grand Priest’s declamatory messages excellently. (The accompanying fanfares to the Herald’s announcements remind us that Gluck was a composer who appreciated the potential of the newly improved brass instruments of the late 18th century, and welcomed them into his orchestras.)

Gluck did not intend King Admete to appear in the first act, but since the entire act is about Apollo’s insistence that he die unless someone will agree to replace him in the netherworld, Negrin, with great effectiveness, integrates Admete, as a mute but dramatically engaged actor, throughout the first act. He also adds the royal couple’s small children, permitting Alceste to interact affectionately with her husband and their offspring at times that she is singing about them. Brewer affectingly performs the beautiful aria Grands Dieux! du destin qui m’accable with Groves’ head in her lap.

[Below: The beloved king of Thessaly, Admete (Paul Groves) lays dying; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

In time, we meet the aliens, whose first manifestation, with otherworldly appearance and hand gestures, is Apollo’s oracle, bass (and Apprentice Singer) Tom Corbeil.

[Below: The Oracle of Apollo (Tom Corbeil, standing) announces that King Admete (Paul Groves) will die that day unless another person agrees to take Admete’s place; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera. ]

With her placid recitative, Immortel Apollon!, Brewer’s Alceste understands that only she is capable of making the sacrifice that Apollo expects. After consultation with the grand priest, Alceste determines to replace her husband. All the villagers having run away, Brewer brilliantly sings the great aria Divinites du Styx, the opera’s most famous piece, that commits Alceste’s soul to the required sacrifice and that ends the act with the expected ovation.

[Below: Alceste (Christine Brewer) and the Divinities of the Styx; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Yet, if one worries that Alceste’s music after Divinites du Styx might be anticlimatic, one does not know their Gluck nor their Brewer, because another series of infectious melodies grace the second act. Brewer’s O Dieux, soutenez mon courage and her exquisite Je n’ai jamais cheri la vie were memorable.

In the second act, Groves moves from a mute role to one in which we not only hear his muscular lyric voice (Bannis la crainte et les alarmes, a work of art) but in which he engages in Greek line dancing as well. Upset that Alceste has chosen to save his life by sacrificing her own, Admete determines to nullify her vow.

Lest anyone assume that this opera is one without action, no less an action figure than the hero Hercule (Wayne Tigges) arrives and agrees to assist Admete.

[Below: Admete (Paul Groves, left) accepts the help of Hercule (Wayne Tigges); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Much of the third act (Santa Fe Opera performs the second and third acts together without an intermission) takes place in Hades, where infernal creatures exist to frighten Alceste.

[Below: an Infernal God (Tom Corbeil, center) and his minions (the dancers); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Admete and Hercule arrive in the realm of Apollo and Admete reunites with Alceste.

[Below: the Divinities of the Styx surround Admete (Paul Groves) and Alceste (Christine Brewer); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Apparently, no one had had a superhero before to combat the forces of the underworld, but Hercule was able to dispatch the aliens with relatively little effort. This impresses Apollo, who rescinds his dictates that had created such grief for Admete and Alceste. All ends well.

[Below: Alceste (Christine Brewer, left) watches her husband Admete (Paul Groves, center) being surrounded by infernal spirits before Hercule (Wayne Tigges, right) is able to overwhelm their power.]

The reason for reviving “Alceste” is not its musical setting of Euripides’ story, but the waves of melody that delight the 21st century ear as much as it did that of the 18th. However, as Negrin, Desire, and Yepes demonstrate, one can accept the dramatic core of the original work, and still make the opera interesting to modern audiences.

Among others who contributed to this evening were Ana Yepes fellow dancers, Selena Elaine Chau, Veronica Guadalupe, Kristen Osler, Andrew Eldridge, Carlos Fittante and Kyle Lang. In addition to Pallesen and Corbeil, three other Santa Fe Opera apprentice singers were impressive in their roles – Matthew Morris as Apollo, Aaron Blake as the Thessalian citizen Evandre, and Jennifer Forni as Coryphee, the lead chorister.

For those able to schedule this fascinating production, I recommend the experience.

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