Dancing Queen: Alceste at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Gluck – Alceste

Admète – Charles Castronovo
Alceste – Dorothea Röschmann
Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon / Hercule – Michael Nagy
Évandre – Manuel Günther
Apollon / Un Hérault – Sean Michael Plumb
Un Dieu infernal / l’Oracle – Callum Thorpe
Chœur des Coryphées – Anna El-Khashem, Noa Beinart, Frederic Jost, Caspar Singh

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Antonello Manacorda.
Stage director and choreographer – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, May 26th, 2019.

For its latest new production in the 2018 – 19 season, the Bayerische Staatsoper engaged the Flemish choreographer and director, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, to produce this staging of Gluck’s Alceste.  Cherkaoui is no stranger to the house, having produced Les Indes galantes here a few seasons ago.  He brought with him thirteen dancers from his Eastman dance company.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Dance music is a thread that runs through Alceste, and so the use of a corps de ballet to provide a foundation to the staging is certainly a pertinent starting point.  Indeed, the dancers constantly provided a visual commentary to the music – their movements amplifying the musical line, giving it life and making it feel as if the movement was an integral part of the musical fabric.  They, together with the singing cast, created so many memorable stage pictures – Admète being carried on the shoulders of the dancers during the Act 2 celebrations, or the sight of Admète and Alceste being separated by shadowy figures as she approached the underworld in Act 3.  Given the constant presence of the dancers, it was surprising that the closing ballet was cut, however, sending us out into the night with the aching sense of a cadence in search of resolution.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

While Cherkaoui’s staging was certainly fascinating to look at, it did however feel that this was to the detriment of the direction of the singers.  The chorus, as much of a protagonist in this work as the principals, was simply marched on and off and occasionally asked to sway backwards and forwards.  Instead of a mob of clearly defined individuals, actively involved in the drama, we had a passive group who left the stage through doors at the side whenever they were not singing.  Furthermore, the acoustic design of the set, seemingly constructed from canvas, meant that the relatively large chorus sounded recessed in the overall balance – at least this seemed to be the case from my seat towards the back of the Parkett.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The impression of disengagement was reinforced by Dorothea Röschmann’s somewhat introspective assumption of the title role.  It must be admitted that the role sits rather awkwardly for Röschmann’s limpid, strawberries and cream soprano, with so much of Alceste’s music sitting within her register breaks.  This meant that she had to gingerly negotiate the lower middle of the voice where so much of the music lies.  The impression of relative coldness was further reinforced by Röschmann’s frequently indistinct French diction, singing over the text rather than with it, which made it difficult for her to allow the full range of Alceste’s emotional journey to come to the fore.  She did rise to a powerful ‘divinités du Styx’, blasting out the high B-flats.  Later, ‘Ah, Divinités implacables’ was sung with a sense of emotion missing elsewhere.  Perhaps this was all due to first night nerves and Röschmann may well relax into the role as the run progresses.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Her Admète was Charles Castronovo, one of the finest tenors in the French repertoire today, and he more than lived up to his reputation.  He sang with open, ringing tone on high, the top spinning nicely.  He also brought a honeyed lyricism, combined with profound tenderness, to his imprecations to Alceste in Act 3.  Castronovo was also exceptionally brave, allowing himself to be hoisted aloft and carried on the shoulders of the gentlemen dancers.  His Admète lived with both passion and love and was always sung off the text, the words absolutely clear throughout.  Another notable new role for this excellent artist.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Michael Nagy brought his firm, evenly produced baritone to his roles.  Also sung in excellent French, he coped well with the higher tessitura of the Grand Prêtre, while also bringing a heroic core to his interjections as Hercule.  The remaining roles, as always, demonstrated the excellent quality of the house.  Manuel Günther sang Évandre in a peppery, characterful tenor.  Sean Michael Plumb brought his youthful, healthy sound to his roles.  Anna El-Khashem capped the lines of the chorus of Coryphées with crystalline lyricism – and managed to maintain her composure singing while being carried upside down on the shoulders of a burly gentleman dancer.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The house chorus sang with vibrant tone, but blend wasn’t always optimal with individual voices sticking out on occasion, as well as a few over-prominent vibratos making their presence known within the texture.  Antonello Manacorda led a reading of classical beauty, focusing on the lyricism of the score, while also encouraging his players to dig deep on occasion to bring out the depth of the tragedy.  I was especially pleased to hear the strings play senza vibrato and their tuning was excellent throughout.  Some nicely raspy horns added a deliciously raucous edge to the orchestral sound.  There was some pleasing use of ornamentation as the evening went along.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

There was so much that satisfied tonight.  Castronovo’s Admète and Nagy’s Grand Prêtre and Hercule were both superb.  Cherkaoui’s staging was always visually fascinating, manifesting the core of the music through dancing of vibrant physicality – as well as staggering precision and unanimity of movement.  And yet, this focus on the creation of these memorable stage pictures, through the dancers, as well as using them to guide the narrative, also pointed to the limitation of the staging.  In that it meant that the creation of vivid, flesh and blood characters and bringing out the tragedy, as well as the hope and the joy, took second place, compounded by an Alceste who seemed passive and verbally indistinct.  That said, it was an evening that had its flaws, but that also allowed the greatness of Gluck’s music to emerge in a number of ways.  It’s certainly a show worth seeing in that respect.

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