Alceste, Teatro Real, Madrid – review

“Your Royal Highness, how prepared were you for the pressures that came with marrying into the Royal Family?” the journalist asks Alceste.

“Although I was daunted . . . I thought I had the support of my husband-to-be,” the Queen replies.

At Madrid’s Teatro Real, Angela Denoke manages to be both Queen of Thessaly and Princess of Wales. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Gluck’s Alceste (1776 version) uses 20th-century references to take the audience on a metaphysical journey. Perhaps Apollo was not at the Paris Hilton, and Charles did not find the Gates of Hades. But Warlikowski, with a nod to Jean Cocteau and Michel Foucault, manages to weave together the Houses of Admetus and Windsor as seamlessly as Gluck drew together his Gods and Mortals.

The Hades where Alceste and Hercules meet is an icy mortuary, where corpses jerk to zombie-like life. Is it true love that drives the King and Queen to declare that they cannot live without one another, and divine intervention that changes their lives? Or are both alienated in their public world, and driven to despair by their inability to comprehend incomprehensible death?

Warlikowski treads delicately through man-made misery and shared iconography, subtly challenging our preconceptions about unconditional love, expectations and mortality.

Ivor Bolton adds to the credibility of his vision, with buoyant tempi and a knack for both communicative recitative and the glassy, otherworldly gloom that only Gluck can create; he makes the Orquesta Titular del Teatro Real sound impressively like a period band.

Overall, the cast is effective both dramatically and musically. Denoke, very much a stage creature, is convincingly regal and human without aping any obvious Spencerisms. She works with a wide vibrato and an ugly tendency to slide between notes, but still makes us believe in her character. Paul Groves is heroic and moving as Admeto, Willard White makes a terrifying Thanatos, while Thomas Oliemans’ Apollo is the uncle every royal child would want. The chorus is strong.

The vociferous boos for Warlikowski and his team after the premiere were bemusing. This is a finely crafted production, musically beguiling and full of substance – a fine achievement for the ailing Gerard Mortier, the Teatro Real’s departing artistic director.

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