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Style and Drama

Gluck's 'Alceste',


With the gradual development of period performance, it has become less common for modern instrument ensembles to venture beyond Mozart, but there is no reason at all why they shouldn't. For their autumn concert, at London's Cadogan Hall on 28 November 2009, the Chelsea Opera Group under conductor Nicholas Collon performed the Paris version of Gluck's Alceste. Whilst few period manners were on display, the orchestra under Collon's stylish direction gave a big-boned but noble performance of this lovely score. There are some strongly dramatic moments in the piece and the orchestra gave full account of these. Collon did not make the mistake of trying to underplay such striking touches like the brass moments in Alceste's 'Divinités du Styx', which closes Act 1. The only area where the instrumental performance seemed slightly conflicted was in the continuo instrument. A baroque harpsichord was used, which meant that the sound of the instrument generally went gently unnoticed; the orchestra should have had the courage of their convictions and used a piano or a large scale, inauthentic harpsichord such as those used by Wanda Landowska.

Gluck's 'Alceste' at Chelsea Opera Group

When it came to the principals, the issue of style was less clear cut and there were a number of different ways of attacking the score present, providing some disparity. Matthew Hargreaves as the High Priest of Apollo had strikingly tall presence and a lovely, focussed bass voice. But his approach was far too dramatic, too late nineteenth century, and we missed a sense of the lovely line of Gluck's music. This meant that his prayers to Apollo in act 1 ('Dieu puissant') were less noble and a little bumpier than they should be.

With Peter Bronder's account of the role of Admete, it was remarkable that the singer was able to perform this taxing role at this stage in his vocal development. Bronder used to be known for his facility singing high lyric roles in the Italian repertoire, but his voice has darkened and grown and he is now a character tenor of some note in the German repertoire, performing Loge, Mime and Herod. But he still sings Idomeneo and Tito (La Clemenza di Tito) and the high tessitura of the role of Admete seemed to cause him few problems. Bronder's performance of Admete matched in style that of the orchestra: it was big boned and dramatic, but Bronder preserved a good sense of Gluck's line. Stylistically he sounded a trifle old-fashioned, but Bronder obviously understood the needs of Gluck's music. Inevitably, given the dramatic nature of his voice, there were moments when Bronder sounded a little too loud, and his vibrato was less than ideal. But overall he contributed a notable performance.

The young Dutch mezzo-soprano Cecile van de Sant seemed to be singing in a slightly different performance. Her Alceste was rather too understated and controlled, her vocal gestures were smaller and would probably have suited a period performance admirably. This was particularly true of Act 1, but van de Sant seemed to also be having vocal problems which might have contributed to this. It was unfortunate that the top of her voice proved problematic at the end of Act 1, including during 'Divinités du Styx', so that, for whatever reason, she failed to make as much dramatic impact as she surely could have. Things improved in Acts 2 and 3, but during the long dramatic dialogue between Alceste and Admete, you were aware that the two singers (van de Sant and Bronder) were not balanced in their approach. So that, though the passage came over strongly, it could have registered far more.

Van de Sant was notable in the final Act, where Alceste is at the gates of hell. Though I was aware that she was still having to manage her voice somewhat, her dramatic intensity increased, and you wished she could have sung the role on this level all the way through. Given the large scale nature of the Chelsea Opera Group performance, it would have been more sensible to have engaged a bigger-voiced dramatic soprano for this role.

The myriad smaller roles were all excellently taken, by singers who all managed to balance the dramatic needs of the performance with a feel for the beautiful simplicity of Gluck's music. David Stout was an endearing Hercules, rushing on to save the day at the end of Act 3. Simon Wilding made a strong impression in the small but important roles of the Oracle and the Infernal God. Jonathan Sells demonstrated a firmly commanding baritone voice as the Herald and Apollo. Sells, along with Paul Curievici, Sophie Junker and Amy Payne sang the Coryphees (the chorus leaders), with Curievici and Junker contributing some notable solo moments.

The chorus, under guest chorus master Robin Newton, seems to have undergone something of a renewal of spirit. Though there were a few smudged passages, they sang the opera's substantial choral sections with a fine focussed tone. The orchestra was on fine form. Gluck's music is not always showy, and getting the style right can be difficult. Under Collon's leadership they managed a nice balance between style and drama.

This was not the most vintage of Chelsea Opera Group performances, but it was a notable and brave attempt at an opera which is still difficult stylistically. As it is nearly thirty years since Janet Baker performed Alceste at Covent Garden, Chelsea Opera Group gave us a welcome opportunity to hear this spellbinding score, underscoring how woefully our main opera companies ignore Gluck.

Copyright © 29 November 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK









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