Gluck’s Alceste at Teatro Real While Remembering Its Artistic DIrector, Gerard Mortier

Gluck: Alceste, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real, Ivor Bolton (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 4 & 8.3.2014 (JMI).

Alceste 6818
Alceste Tatro Real Madrid (c) Javier Real

Alceste: Angela Denoke/Sofia Soloviy
Admète: Paul Groves/Tom Randle
High Priest/Thanatos: Sir Willard White
Evandre: Magnus Staveland
Hercules: Thomas Oliemans
Apollo: Isaac Galán
Herald/Oracle: Fernando Radó
New Production: Teatro Real
Direction: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross
Videos: Denis Guéguin


As I was writing this review I learned of the death of Gerard Mortier, Artistic Director of Teatro Real for the past 4 years, whose presence at the front of the house has not gone unnoticed. Few figures in the world of opera have been so much discussed, and few have been as faithful to their principles as Mortier. It’s a sad day for the world of opera.

Teatro Real had rightly decided to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Christoph Willibald Gluck by offering one of his most important operas, Alceste, in the French version, which doesn’t seem to have ever been performed in Spain. Alceste is one of the most significant works in the revolutionary movement undertaken by Gluck, although it lacks the beauty and inspiration that are present in his most important opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.

For this occasion Gerard Mortier commissioned a new production by one of his favorite directors, Krzysztof Warlikowski, whose work we have had the opportunity to see in Madrid in recent years. I found this Alceste production attractive and interesting, but it is a pity that Mr. Warlikowski’s eagerness for protagonism ends up spoiling his work.

Warlikowski sets the action in modern times and, overall, he follows the opera’s story line. Act I is set first in a hospital and then in a temple; the second act takes place at a party with guests celebrating Admète’s healthy recovery; and the third act takes place at the gates of hell (here a morgue) where Alceste comes to fulfill her oath to give her life to save her husband’s. The setting is an empty space enclosed by side walls where different props are added. The costumes are quite attractive, and the lighting is remarkable. The production adds some video projections on Alceste and her family that cover in more depth the torment of the Queen of Thessaly.

So far, so good. But Mr. Warlikowski does more that that: he puts the opera at his service and not vice versa, as it always should be. I cannot understand (except as pure arrogance) a number of things that occurred during the performance, which served only to spoil the staging to the point that it received the loudest booing I have witnessed in Spain.

Does Lady Diana have anything in common with Alceste? For anybody in his right mind, absolutely nothing. What then is the purpose of the numerous statements by Mr. Warlikowski saying that his production was inspired by the figure of Lady Di? Why must the opera begin with an interview with Alceste, as if she were the Princess of Wales in the famous TV interview? It lasts no less than 6 minutes and has nothing to do with Alceste.

In addition, Mr. Warlikowski seems to believe that the public might have difficulty following the plot, and he adds dialogues at two points in the opera. Although this was the French version of Alceste, Mr. Warlikowski’s dialogues were not in French, not even in Spanish, but…in English. These conversations lasted over 5 minutes.

It seems that in Mr. Warlikowski’s imagination hell is quite an interesting world. In fact the corpses in Act III have a very good time making love (or whatever it is that dead people do). The problem is that they move all over the place and rather disturb the real drama of Alceste and Admète.

Alceste is ultimately saved from death by the intervention of Hercules so there is a happy ending, but Warlikowski could not let the occasion pass without offering a personal touch. With the ballet music that closes the opera he shows the royal family having a meal together. Queen Alceste is indeed alive but in a wheelchair and unable to move.

Ivor Bolton, recently appointed Music Director of Teatro Real, was on the podium. His conducting was good to a certain extent but less than what I expected from him. Of course, his reading was not helped by the frequent stops that the direction demanded: they broke the musical fluidity. I found Mr. Bolton rather heavy-handed in Act I; he improved later on but was never able to bring emotion into the audience. Perhaps the memory of Marc Minkowski a few weeks back in Orfeo ed Euridice was still too fresh. The orchestra was fine but did not measure up to other performances this season. The Choir was not at its best, and they had problems following Mr.Bolton during the second act.

Alceste was German soprano Angela Denoke. Her stage performance could not be more convincing, but it is debatable whether this excellent soprano is up to the demands of the score. Her center is not enough for Alceste, and she is now rather tight at the top of the tessitura. Her big aria, “Divinités du Styx,” went virtually unnoticed. In the second cast we had Sofia Soloviy, whose overall performance I found unconvincing. Her stage interpretation cannot be compared with Mrs. Denoke’s. In vocal terms she provided a fresh soprano, easy at the top, but again her voice is inadequate to the demands of Alceste.

Paul Groves was Admète. He too was convincing on stage, but he is not at his best now, and his high notes are too thin and whitish. Tom Randle was the second cast’s Admète, and he was unconvincing except in stage terms. His voice is not attractive, and he is uncomfortable with the tessitura. There were too many forced sounds.

In the secondary characters Sir Willard White offered his sonorous voice as High Priest and Thanatos, with too much vibrato at the top. Magnus Staveland was a good Evandre. Thomas Oliemans was a serviceable Hercules.

José Mª. Irurzun