First, the good news about the Santa Fe Opera's just-opened new production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Alceste, performed in the 1776 Paris version: While the opera gets points galore for its innovations in style and substance, Alceste doesn't see many stagings. The composer's Orfeo ed Euridice is a standard, and productions of Iphigénie en Tauride have been cropping up recently. So, thanks are due to the SFO for providing a chance to hear this infrequently produced opera.
The terms "noble" and "sublime" get tossed about with reference to Alceste. Sometimes that's code for "slow" and "static." But given the right conductor and an intent, vigorous orchestra, this needn't be the case. Kenneth Montgomery, whose alliance with the SFO goes way back, could always be relied upon to conduct a reliable, four-square account of any score he's led here. No departures from that norm now, although not a great deal of excitement, either. He and his orchestra deliver a capable, right-down-the-middle reading of the opera.
Paul Groves' graceful, flexible lyric tenor has been a major ornament to the many roles he's undertaken over the last dozen years or more. He made a fine Admète in the acclaimed John Eliot Gardiner/Robert Wilson production a few years back. If anything, his account of the role for the SFO is even better. He's a stylish singer, passionate in his dramatic projection, and his voice is ideally suited to Gluck's clean, finely shaped vocal lines.
In Alceste, more than in nearly any other opera, the chorus functions as a major character and participant in the drama. The many intensely beautiful choral passages here, as in the opera's Euripidean source, comment upon the action, carry the plot forward when necessary and often set the tone for the work as a whole.
Admirably prepared by Susanne Sheston, the large SFO chorus of apprentice artists is simply wonderful—expressive and sympathetic throughout. Four other apprentices, Nicholas Pallesen, Jennifer Forni, Aaron Blake and Tom Corbeil, take relatively small but important roles. The significant if minor part of Hercule is sung by Wayne Tigges with swagger and a touch of the comic.
Christine Brewer, the eagerly awaited Alceste, makes a grandly conceived, imposing figure as the tragic queen. But vocal difficulties assailed her opening night: an upper register inclined to shrillness and approximate intonation much of the evening. Matters improved in her heart-breaking third-act aria, "Ah! Divinités implacables!" in which she was at her significant best. Earlier on, her showpiece aria, "Divinités du Styx," was ruined by capering, posturing dancers.
Stage director Francisco Negrin is well-known at the SFO as a purveyor of the peculiar. His Mitridate required grotesque scarification for the male leads. His Agrippina featured a group of mimes costumed as part of the set's wainscoting. But disastrously, his Alceste overwhelms the show with a puerile welter of self-indulgent stunts that displays little respect for the opera's sublime music.
Supernatural beings, the gods of the plot, moonwalk their way about the set, clad in bizarre, vaguely Indonesian carapaces. The Oracle emerges from an egg-like contraption that looks like an extraterrestrial barbecue. As mentioned, Alceste's big first-act aria is spoiled by lunging, lurching infernal creatures. But Negrin saves the unkindest cut of all for the finale, Gluck's exuberant orchestral "Chaconne," meant to celebrate the reunion of Alceste and Admète with their joyous subjects.
Not here. Now it's a dance of death starring those annoying infernal beings as they haul the principals and chorus offstage to a grim subterranean fate. A more capricious, wrong-headed staging? Impossible.
The director's perversities are abetted by choreographer Ana Yepes' intrusive, pretentious dances, and scenic and costume designer Louis Désiré's eldritch visual devices. But just ignore all that. Keep thinking Gluck. It's the music, it's the music, it's the music.
8:30 pm Wednesday and Monday, Aug. 5 and 10
Santa Fe Opera