Gluck - Alceste

La Monnaie, Brussels - Sunday February 1 2004

Conductor: Ivor Bolton. Production: Robert Wilson. Admète: Kurt Streit. Alceste: Katarina Karneus. Grand-Prêtre: David Wilson-Johnson. Évandre: James Gilchrist. Apollon/Un Hérault d'armes: Nabil Suliman. Hercule: Nathaniel Webster. Un Coryphée: Céline Scheen. L'Oracle/Un Dieu Infernal: Henry Waddington. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Quite a Bob Wilson week for me, with his brand new production of La Fontaine’s Fables at the Comédie Française – a charming, funny production revealing a humorous side I didn’t realise Wilson had – followed by Alceste in Brussels. Alceste is one of several Gluck productions Wilson mounted in Paris five or six years ago. His style of that time is pretty well-suited to Gluck’s calm, measured music: simple blue sets; careful lighting; plain, dark, flowing costumes; slow, deliberate movements and gestures; characters picked out and followed around the stage by narrow spotlights…It’s a style that has dated surprisingly quickly, but remains, as I say, effective for this kind of work.

The Brussels cast was fairly strong. Katarina Karneus has the right kind of voice for Gluck, somehow reminiscent of Ana-Caterina Antonacci (in looks as well): a strong medium, good diction, some character, though lacking body somewhat at the top. I can’t say, therefore, why she failed to move me in what should be a moving role. The drama somehow wasn’t there. Kurt Streit therefore shone as Admète. His voice, for those who don’t know it, is a bright, high tenor, a touch vulgar in tone but convincing, as is his stage presence: a handsome, upright king. The other star of the show was, unsurprisingly, the flawless David Wilson-Johnson as the High Priest.

The Monnaie orchestra, under Ivor Bolton, got off to a ragged start, it seemed to me, and never really shone all afternoon. Dare I say it? A “period instrument” orchestra would have had a good deal more bite, the tragedy would have been more intense, the horror of Hades more frightening. Nevetheless, a fair show, well worth the 80-minute train ride from Paris to Brussels. The hardest part, after a Belgian lunch and in the upper circle of an overheated theatre, with such gentle music as Gluck’s, was staying awake…

Now, does anyone know why the words, when for Alceste's big moment we expected to hear "Divinités du Styx," were, simply, "Ombres, larves"?

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