Perhaps the most arresting moment of the Vienna State Opera’s “new” Alceste production is the Queen’s arrival at the gates of Hades. The French horns place their bells against one another, creating a dark, unearthly growl.
“New” because this production, billed as a premiere, was in fact unveiled in Aix-en-Provence back in 2010. But it is new to hear Gluck on original instruments at Vienna’s Staatsoper. And the Freiburger Barockorchester is the star of the show. It is the ensemble’s first appearance in the house, the second Baroque opera of intendant Dominique Meyer’s new era, and the first time Gluck has been performed at the State Opera in 22 years.
In fact Gluck wrote Alceste for Vienna in 1767. But this is the first Vienna performance of the revised French version that he penned a decade later for Paris. And Loy’s production, already a proven success, was a suitably low-risk gamble for Meyer, especially with Véronique Gens and Joseph Kaiser retaining their roles as the royal couple.
Loy takes the gods, cruel puppet-masters in Gluck’s story, out of the equation, and instead tells a human story. Admète and Alceste are bourgeois parents of a chorus-sized household of children somewhere Nordic during the early 20th century. The sacrifices demanded by Apollo are relayed by a black-clad, Bible-thumping cleric (persuasively sung by Clemens Unterreiner). Alceste’s offer to die in her husband’s place is more an expression of desperation than a deal with the deities. The world is a little too much for both of them. The children, faced with the impossible harshness of death, are out of their depth. Dirk Becker’s sets and Ursula Renzenbrink’s costumes play with perspective, dwarfing the chorus with high windows, short pants and stuffed toys.
Gens is compelling in the title role: intelligent, passionate and husbanding her vocal resources well. Kaiser is her decorative, despairing spouse; neither’s voice is huge, but both are refined, moving and intense.
The Gustav Mahler choir sings well, the smaller roles are well-cast, and Ivor Bolton keeps the pace taut and the drama high. From Mozart to Wagner, most of the standard works that constitute the Vienna State Opera’s bread and butter would have been impossible without Gluck’s reforms. Under Bolton, the Freiburger Barockorchester makes this music sound as if the ink were still wet on the page.