Greeks and Glamour
Open Paris Opera Season
Sophie Koch as Alceste comforts her children. Photo: Opéra National de Paris/Agathe Poupeney
When the Viennese composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote confidently in 1776, at the time of its first French production, that his opera Alceste “will give equal pleasure in 200 years,” he would no doubt have been glad to hear that this same opera has opened the Paris season a full 237 years later, in a new production by Olivier Py at the Opéra Garnier.
Eclipsed by the brilliance of his contemporary Mozart, however, Gluck would have been less pleased to know that productions of his operas are relative rarities these days. It is easy to forget that Gluck was the great star of his age, revolutionizing opera in France in his attempt to bring it back to its origins by giving words and music equal weight. As so often happens in the musical world, Gluck became embroiled in many a quarrel, not least one that had taken place a few years earlier in Paris with his rival, the Neapolitan composer Niccolò Piccinni (for a brilliant recent analysis of this controversy, see Mark Darlow’s book on the subject). Gluck would eventually leave Paris for his native Vienna, disillusioned by the poor reception of his final opera, Echo et Narcisse.
The story of Alcestis (Alceste) and Admetus (Admète), drawn from the work of the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, is ripe for operatic treatment (Handel had already set the same subject). As King Admetus lies dying, the High Priest of the god Apollo ordains that Admetus’s life will be saved if someone else offers to die in his place. With other proposals failing to materialize, Alcestis offers to take her husband’s place.
For all of Gluck’s ideals, his music lacks the urgency and dramatic effectiveness of a Mozart. Much of the opera consists of aria after aria by Alceste and Admète bemoaning their fate. There are moments when the music catches fire, however: Alceste’s descent to death, for example, seems to anticipate brilliantly Don Giovanni’s plunge into hell, and Gluck makes fascinating use of an offstage horn.
My past experiences of Olivier Py as director have not been happy ones; all too often he seemed to be striving for clever effects without getting to the heart of the drama, and his film Les Yeux Fermés must rank as one of the most pretentious ever made. Here, however, Py avoids cheap tricks in a refreshingly low-tech production. Throughout the opera, various backdrops are drawn in chalk on an immense blackboard and then erased by a team of artists, often to devastating effect. The gradual creation and then erasure of the king’s palace (depicted as the Opéra Garnier) at the beginning vividly brings out the fragility of the dying monarch and his kingdom (and might also apply to the precarious financial state of the arts in France today).
Py employs other stunningly simple but effective ideas. His decision to place the full orchestra (the Musiciens du Louvre de Grenoble, superbly conducted by the early-music stalwart Marc Minkowski) onstage in the final act, for example, not only brought the instrumental playing to the fore but also freed up the orchestra pit to double as the underworld.
Musically, both singing and playing are generally excellent. Sophie Koch as Alceste is in fine form. In spite of some intonation problems in her lower register and the occasional strain at the top of her range, she is a fully committed performer who commands the stage. Yann Beuron in the role of Admète sings very pleasantly and evenly, but has a somewhat bland stage presence.
Great demands are placed on the chorus, which sings throughout the opera, but it rises to the occasion magnificently. Of the other parts, it is worth singling out the young tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Evander, definitely a star of the future.
Atilla Kiss-B as Albert Gregor, Ricarda Merbeth as Emilia Marty and Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Dr. Kolenaty. Photo: Opéra National de Paris/Mirco Magliocca
For those who prefer their opera productions to be more high-tech, the reprise at the Bastille Opera House of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2007 production of Janacek’s The Makropoulos Case will be more to their liking.
The opera is set in the Hollywood glamour years, with video backdrops of old movies, and the all-important central character, the 337-year-old Emilia Marty (sung and acted with panache by Ricarda Merbeth), is portrayed as an eternal Marilyn Monroe. There is even room on the set for a giant model of King Kong and a swimming pool. While not all the symbols work, overall the updated setting is effective, and the solitude of the woman whose lovers and relations are all long since dead is all too painfully realized.
For the first time in my Paris opera-going experience, the piece is conducted by a woman, the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki, who directs with precision and verve. One would like to rail against the French for their backward ways, but other countries have hardly been more forward-thinking. Only a few days ago, at the London Last Night of the Proms, a woman conducted the orchestra for the first time in its 118-year history. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until we are as old as Emilia Marty before the next woman conducts at the Paris Opera.
Opéra National de Paris:
Alceste: Palais Garnier, corner of Rue Scribe and Rue Auber, 75009 Paris. Tel.: 08 92 89 90 90 (+33 1 72 29 35 35 from abroad). Remaining performances: September 19, 25, 28 and October 2, 4, 7 at 7:30pm; September 22 at 2:30pm. Tickets: €10-€195. www.operadeparis.fr
The Makropoulos Case: Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris. Métro: Bastille. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: September 19, 24, 27, 30 and October 2 at 7:30pm. Tickets: €5-€140. www.operadeparis.fr
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