Gluck - Alceste

ONP Garnier, Wednesday September 26 2013

Conductor: Marc Minkowski. Production: Olivier Py. Sets & costumes: Pierre-André Weitz. Lighting: Bertrand Killy. Admète: Yann Beuron. Alceste: Sophie Koch. Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon: Jean-François Lapointe. Evandre / soli ténor: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Un Hérault d’armes, Apollon: Florian Sempey. Hercule: Franck Ferrari. Coryphée / soli soprano: Marie-Adeline Henry. L’Oracle, Un Dieu infernal: François Lis. Soli alto: Bertrand Dazin. Chorus and Orchestra of the Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble.

"Alceste: what a waste of 200 euros".

Gluck
That was, I'm sorry to say, the text message I sent to a friend just after this week's performance of Alceste. I was exaggerating a bit: not about the waste, but about the price. I'd rounded it up from 195 euros. When you go to see Alceste you expect (at least until Hercule comes blustering in) to be roused by the majestic nobility of it - not bored: Olivier Py's cold, fidgety production seemed more self-absorbed in labouring through its own concepts than helping the performers engage with the audience.

Cold, because this was an all-black-and-white staging: black walls, black suits, white shirts, black dresses, white for Alceste, all lit in-your-face by fluorescents strips. The chorus looked, once again (this is getting tiresome), like a City office party, e.g. at Ernst & Young or one of the other big five (or four, or is it now down to three?) accounting firms. Thirty-something auditors with champagne glasses in their hands fail to arouse our sympathies as actors in a tragedy.

Fidgety, because:
  1. A group of artists (in black of course) continuously drew the scenery on the black flats and rubbed it out again with mops. As we took our seats, for example, they were already busily chalking out the façade of the Palais Garnier. Once the show got under way and we progressed to landscapes, the wild waves of Admète's electrocardiogram, or a baroque seaport, this was fatally distracting. As my hero the FT critic put it: "... the eye is inevitably drawn to their expert doodling and Mrs Mopping when it should be trained on a princess prepared to sacrifice herself for her husband". The obvious symbol of impermanence, once established, hardly needed rubbing in (and out again) all evening.
  2. To reach the upper areas of the scenery, the artists needed stairs - black stairs of course, on black scaffolding - wheeled in and out by stagehands in black.
  3. The singers occasionally took up a stick of chalk and scrawled on the sets ("... the infantile writing of slogans on blackboards" as the FT put it). E.g. "Only music saves" or, mysteriously, "Les Nuits d'Eté". Was that something to do with Berlioz and his admiration for Alceste? Or was Sophie Koch just wishing she were somewhere else, singing something not mis en scène?
  4. As if this weren't enough, there was also an angel of death - a dancer in flowing black - hovering first round Admète, then over Alceste, and other occasional dancers amazingly, amidst all the black, dipped in gold.
Also, a white hospital bed, first Admète's, later Alceste's, like a player in one of those "freeze" games children play, was comically in a different place on the rear steps every time the set parted.

L'Oracle wore a doctor's white coat. Hercule was a Mephisto-like character pulling a dove out of his top hat and scattering glitter. The interval curtain was a black-and white version of Bosch's vision of the ascent to heaven in the Garden of Earthly Delights.  A puzzling choice for a descent into hell. Perhaps it was a clever joke. After the curtain, we found the orchestra on stage so the pit they had quit could represent hell, with the chorus now wearing skull masks on the backs of their heads climbing out as they sang, and the soloists, including Alceste on her much-travelled hospital bed, crammed at the edge of the apron.

It was, it struck me, as if Py were giving a rather dry and didactic demonstration, to a class of theatre students, of how in his view opera might now be staged, but had been too busy, having other classes to teach or fish to fry, to give enough time to the score, story or singers. As well as gimmicky, it came over as somehow both perfunctory - sketchy is I suppose the right word - and clinical, denying Gluck's wonderful score any chance of conveying emotion.

In the third act being, as I just said, forced to the edge of the stage, Sophie Koch projected better than before the interval. She had lacked the declamatory force needed for "Divinités du Styx" and, disconcertingly for someone so recently such a lovely Charlotte, now has at least three different timbres, depending on pitch, and unexpectedly hot-potato diction. Yann Beuron was the only singer really attempting to declaim his part comprehensibly; but it was annnounced, after the break, that he was sick and losing his voice, and he lost it in act three.

The rest of the cast were the good (e.g. Jean-François Lapointe), the not-too-bad (François Lis, Franck Ferrari) and the ugly (not actually clear who: as everyone was dressed the same, you couldn't always single out culprits). So the winners were the ever-punchy Minkowski (punchiness suits Gluck, I think, who might otherwise be mimsy) and his orchestra - and of course, Gluck himself and his score.

Not a great start to my Paris season. I wonder if the revival of Vec Makropoulos in one of the Paris Opera's best productions will make up for it?

(Later note: I see the NY Times critic was in agreement: "Olivier Py’s ice-cold production at the Garnier, which shows a single-minded determination to expunge the opera of any trace of emotion".) 

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