To Hell and Back: Alceste at the Opéra de Paris

Gluck – Alceste

Admète – Stanislas de Barbeyrac

Alceste – Véronique Gens

Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon / Hercule – Stéphane Degout

Coryphée soprano – Chiara Skerath

Evandre, Coryphée alto – Manuel Nuñez Camelino

Coryphée ténor – Kevin Amiel

Apollon / Un Hérault / Coryphée basse – Tomislav Lavoie

Un Dieu infernal / l’Oracle – François Lis

Chœur des Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble / Sébastien Rouland.

Stage director – Olivier Py.

Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, Paris.  Thursday, June 25th, 2015.

The Paris Opéra is a beautiful theatre with a proud history.  With its gilded halls and stunning interior, attending a show here always feels like a privilege.  It’s no wonder that visitors from all over the world flock to this fabulous venue yet unfortunately, the behaviour of certain audience members tonight was not what one would have hoped for.  Lots of chatting, cellphones ringing, constant loud coughing – it was not the ideal environment for this highly intelligent production to be seen.  Fortunately, a number of people left at the interval though the wait for the interval didn’t stop one lady, who had clearly gone crazy at the nearby Jimmy Choo location, loudly exiting with all her bags during the middle of Act 1.  At the very least the coat check should have been made available for the considerable number of spectators with lots of shopping.  While the Opéra does make announcements in French and English about turning off cellphones, they might like to  also consider adding one in Mandarin.

Véronique Gens Photo: © Julien Benhamou
Véronique Gens Photo: © Julien Benhamou

Olivier Py’s staging was clearly influenced by the Opéra’s building itself.  The set was dominated by two large chalkboards upon which artists drew several large images in chalk reflecting the story.  At first, they drew an image of the Palais Garnier itself, later we saw images of a broken heart, stars, a boat travelling on the sea and a number of others.  Additionally, in act three, the orchestra was moved from the pit onto the stage with the pit used to represent the realms of hell itself.  In a way, by starting with an image of the Palais Garnier and later moving the orchestra the stage, Py was drawing the audience in by highlighting the space between the quotidian and the mythic.  A lady dancer, covered completely in black appeared to represent death bringing Alceste from the realms of life to death and back.  The evening ends with Alceste’s head covered with a black cloth as if marked by her experience and unable to escape it.  Neither she nor Admète look at each other at the close, any hope that we might have had of a happy ending, completely lost.  Costumes (Pierre-André Weitz) are simple and almost timeless, dominated mainly by black with Alceste’s journey mapped by her change from wearing a black dress to a white one as she enters death.  Aesthetically, with its reliance on the colour black, it has much in common with Py’s Munich Trovatore and as with that staging, it is a highly perceptive and imaginative piece of theatre.  It was extremely well served by a truly outstanding cast.

Véronique Gens, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Les Musiciens du Louvre Photo: © Julien Benhamou
Véronique Gens, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Les Musiciens du Louvre Photo: © Julien Benhamou

Alceste is a big role but it’s also a highly rewarding one for the singer singing her.  When I interviewed Véronique Gens last fall she mentioned to me that she never plans her ornamentation in advance and always decides on the evening itself based on her inspiration at that very moment.  Tonight she gave us a glorious performance that felt as if she was completely inside her character and that the music had been written for her and her alone.  I’ve written before about how her limpid soprano is instantly recognizable and how it’s an instrument of great tonal beauty.  Singing in her mother tongue, the verbal acuity that she brought to the role was truly remarkable – the diction crystal clear (as indeed was the whole cast’s), the way she illuminated the words using the voice superb.  Her ‘divinités du Styx’ was sung with exactly the kind of resolve it needed but the real demonstration of her true artistry came in ‘divinités implacables’.  Gens sang it with effortlessly long lines, creamy and rich tone and glorious ornamentation.  Indeed, it felt less like an artist singing a role and more like someone genuinely living the role and the music.  It was something very special indeed.

Véronique Gens, Les Musiciens du Louvre Photo: © Julien Benhamou
Véronique Gens, Les Musiciens du Louvre Photo: © Julien Benhamou

Stanislas de Barbeyrac sang Admète with his handsome tenor and crystalline diction.  If he didn’t perhaps point the words as much as some of his cast mates, this is something that will come with time.  Others might find the voice a little soft-grained, perhaps lacking the touch of metal that the role might require.  On the contrary, I found the sheer beauty of his tone a wonderful match to the music – the voice even, the legato smooth and a velvety tone that warmed up the theatre.  He more than met the promise that his recent Arbace at the Royal Opera suggested.  Stéphane Degout, in his twin roles, gave us a lieder singer’s attention to text, the tone solid and firm throughout the range.  He also showed great flamboyance as Hercule completely entering the spirit of the staging.  The remaining roles were well cast notably François Lis’s solid divinité infernale and Chiara Skerath’s fruity soprano capping the ensembles.

Stéphane Degout, Véronique Gens Photo: © Julien Benhamou
Stéphane Degout, Véronique Gens Photo: © Julien Benhamou

The instrumentalists and chorus of the Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble were stylistically impeccable.  The chorus sang with fine unanimity of tone, good amplitude and immaculate ensemble.  The orchestra gave us some delightfully warm string tone and some highly characterful wind playing.  The raspiness of the period brass was wonderful to hear.  Despite all the positives there is I’m afraid a ‘but’ and that was Sébastien Rouland’s conducting.  Sharing the musical direction of the run with Marc Minkowski I’m afraid I found Rouland’s direction somewhat earthbound.  Tempi were stately and with the lean sonority of the band it felt that things needed to be pushed forward more.  Rhythmically I found it a little on the stodgy side.  He did obtain playing of great delicacy from the band but I found the conducting perhaps lacked the urgency that the piece lives in.  Make no mistake, the quality of the orchestral playing was undeniable and it really was a very special evening.

Ensemble Photo: © Julien Benhamou
Ensemble Photo: © Julien Benhamou

This really was a performance that brought the work the life.  Gloriously sung, in a highly perceptive and imaginative staging, it was a real privilege to see the drama come to life in the most remarkable way.  The biggest compliment I can give it is that once it started, I was immune to the anti-social behaviour of my neighbours and was drawn completely into the tragedy of Alceste by a magnificent performer who once again genuinely lived and breathed her role.





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