February 7, 2010By Nick HammondArchive

Fine Cast and Orchestra
Carry Revived Production


The orchestra onstage. Photo © Julien Benhamou

It can sometimes be instructive to revisit an operatic production viewed previously, and I was glad to have the chance to see the return of Olivier Py’s production of Gluck’s Alceste, still conducted by Marc Minkowski, but with a largely different cast, at the Opéra Garnier, first reviewed a couple of years ago. The story is drawn from Euripides’ tale of Apollo’s offer to spare the life of the dying King Admetus if someone volunteers to die in his place. Admetus’s wife Alcestis is prepared to make the sacrifice.

The standard of music-making is still astonishingly high, and the cast is even stronger than in the first run. Minkowski is an engaging and energetic conductor, and in the final act we are even given the chance to see him onstage with his orchestra, the Orchestre des Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. This is not as bizarre an idea as one might think – the composer Hector Berlioz once wrote about watching the orchestra onstage at a Gluck opera.

Véronique Gens as Alceste was the real revelation of the night. Vocally more secure than her predecessor in the role in Paris, Sophie Koch, she sang with intensity and real beauty. Stanislas de Barbeyrac makes for a much more charismatic Admète than the somewhat bland Yann Beuron did earlier. Mention should also be made of the young soprano Chiara Skerath, who sings the part of Coryphée with glorious tonal color; she is a real talent to look out for in the future. The Chorus of the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble play an important role in the opera and were on sparkling form throughout.

My impression of the music itself remains the same: Gluck can write gorgeous music, but it is often rather static dramatically. The scenes between Alceste and Admète, for example, cry out for exhilarating duets, which never quite materialize. Given that he was writing his operas just before Mozart’s masterpieces, one has the sense of a composer looking backward to a Baroque past rather than forward to an exciting future.

In my last review, I wrote that, having not enjoyed the pretentiousness of Py’s previous work, I was pleasantly surprised by this “refreshingly low-tech production,” but this time the backdrops drawn in chalk on a large blackboard impressed me much less; they seemed like a cheap gimmick, not helped by the dull costumes. A friend I met at the interval, a regular at the Metropolitan in New York, remarked that the set and costumes made the production look low-budget and provincial, and I reluctantly had to agree with her.

In other musical news from Paris, it was announced this week that British conductor Daniel Harding will be taking over as principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris from 2016. Soon to turn 40, Harding was the wunderkind protégé of conductors Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, and securing his services in Paris is a real coup. I have to admit that, having sung in choruses conducted by both Rattle and Harding, I found Harding’s conducting rather passionless beside Rattle’s, but Harding insists that he has changed a great deal since those early years. Certainly he will be willing to explore an interesting new repertoire, and that can only be a good thing for musical life in Paris.

Nick Hammond

Opéra National de Paris: Place de l’Opéra, 75009 Paris. Métro: Opéra. Tel.: 0 892 89 90 90 or + 33 (0)1 71 25 24 23 (from abroad). Remaining performances: June 18, 20, 23, 25, 28, July 1, 5, 9, 12, 15 at 7:30pm. Tickets: €25-€231.

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