Alceste, Paris Opera (Garnier) – review

When does a producer’s signature style move across the line to lazy repetition? In the case of Robert Wilson’s slow-motion posing, very early on in his career. Olivier Py is now in danger of falling into the same trap. His staging of Gluck’s Alceste is the first new production in the Paris Opera’s season but it has a stale feel, rather as if he was too busy working on next month’s Aida at Bastille to find something fresh to say.

Py’s biggest problem is his trusted set and costume designer, Pierre-André Weitz, who yet again rolls out his trademark neon strips and moveable scaffolding and dresses everyone in black. Despite the to-ing and fro-ing – technicians are forever appearing to push staircases together – the production feels rooted in oratorio stiffness, an impression that is reinforced in the third act when the curtain rises to reveal the orchestra on stage and Hades in the pit, a coup de théâtre but one that reduces the cast to mere soloists.

The first two acts see the singers similarly upstaged by a talented group of artists – not credited in the programme but warmly applauded at curtain call – who spend the entire opera chalking up façades and vistas on black surfaces before returning with buckets and sponges to wipe them clean. This, admittedly, was new but 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. Add in Py’s penchant for theatrical faux pas – the infantile writing of slogans on blackboards is one – and you have a curiously self-defeating exercise. The contrast with Christof Loy’s sharply focused updating for Aix in 2010 is withering.

Even a top-drawer cast would have struggled in these circumstances but Sophie Koch (Alcestis) has sung too much Richard Strauss to back-pedal convincingly to a classical style that requires more varied tone. She cuts a noble figure but lacks the key chest notes to bring the house down in “Divinités du Styx”. Yann Beuron’s moving Admetus is much nearer the mark despite pinched top notes and Jean-François Lapointe’s robust High Priest would have made a bigger impression if Py had exploited his acting skills.

Young Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s excellent tenor stands out among minor roles and Marc Minkowski conducts his baroque band and first-rate chorus with his customary energy even if this means bulldozing through some sweetly lyrical patches.

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