Return of the Dancing Queen: Alceste at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Gluck – Alceste

Admète – Juan Francisco Gatell
Alceste – Marina Viotti
Le Grand Prêtre d’Apollon / Hercule – Luca Tittoto
Évandre – Patrik Reiter
Apollon / Un Hérault – Pietro Di Bianco
Un Dieu infernal / l’Oracle – Roberto Lorenzi
Chœur des Coryphées – Carolina Varela, Angela Nicoli, Michael Alfonsi, Leo Paul Chiarot

Eastman Dance Company Antwerp, Coro del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma / Gianluca Capuano.
Stage director and choreographer – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome, Italy.  Sunday, October 9th, 2022. 

This run of Alceste is the first at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma since 1967, when the leading roles were taken by Leyla Gencer and Mirto Picchi.  For this first production of the, now not so, new millennium, the house imported Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s staging from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Today, I attended the third performance of the run.

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Cherkaoui’s staging is now a familiar quantity.  Indeed, I attended the Munich premiere back in 2019 and it has since also been released on DVD.  As a noted choreographer, it’s understandable that Cherkaoui would wish to incorporate dance into his staging – and here, as in Munich, the staging is enhanced with the presence of Cherkaoui’s own Eastman Dance Company from Antwerp.  Cherkaoui gives us much to look at, the constant activity of the dancers really does heighten the sense of the music.  The most impressive moment comes in Act 3, where shady figures, dressed in black and on stilts, are fought off by Hercule and Admète. 

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Yet for the remainder of the evening, I found myself frequently asking what the purpose of the dance element was – however seriously visually impressive it was to watch.  Juan Francisco Gatell must have nerves of steel as Admète in the way that he was levitated by the dancers over the crowds.  Yet, were we watching dance as an extension of ritual, with the crowd ranged at the sides of the stage, or did the dancers function as an extension of the psyche of the characters?  I’m not sure we’re given the answer.  The result was that the individual performances of the principals were overshadowed, resorting instead frequently to stock operatic gestures, while activity took place around them.  Perhaps this was to be expected given Cherkaoui’s reputation as one of the finest choreographers out there today.  What I left with today, was a sense of a very interesting experiment, one that does offer some insights, but that also doesn’t give the principals space to tell their stories fully.

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Making her debut in the title role for this run is Marina Viotti.  This is a huge undertaking for a mezzo, and I was also keen to hear Viotti singing this iconic role in her mother tongue.  In many respects this is a statement of intent.  Her big closing scene in Act 1, with the celebrated ‘divinités du Styx’, found a hardness entering the tone on high, while she didn’t quite soar with ease in her opening ‘grands dieux! du destin qui m’accable’, coming as it does early on in the evening.  Yet, Viotti integrated the fact that the role takes her to her current limits into her interpretation of it.  This was no passive Alceste, but instead a big-hearted, courageous woman, full of passion, who refused to accept fate, but instead was determined to fight it.  She achieved this through scrupulous attention to text, making the words count, digging deep to find meaning.  Her ‘Ah malgré moi, mon faible cœur partage’ in Act 2, was sung with her recognizable bronzed beauty of tone, with an effortlessly smooth legato, while that glorious number in Act 3, ‘Ah! divinités implacables’, was sung not with resignation, but with a sense of wanting to continue fighting, using those beautiful melodies to find truth deep in the music.  Viotti shows that she is on the way to becoming a great tragédienne.  Indeed, I was thinking I would very much like to hear her Didon in a decade or so. 

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

What a pleasure it was to hear Gatell’s freedom of vocalism as Admète.  The role holds no terrors for his focused, bright tenor, with an easy top, soaring with ease through the textures.  His diction was also highly comprehensible, also digging out for meaning and finding beauty in both the text and his impeccably phrased lines.  Luca Tittoto was a granite-toned presence in his roles.  It does sound that the roles are rather high for him, the top of the voice lacking in the body it has further down.  However, he did negotiate the challenging tessitura through sheer experience.  In the remaining roles, I was impressed by Pietro Di Bianco who sang with a handsome and resonant baritone in his roles, while Patrik Reiter was a positive presence as Évandre, singing with verbal acuity.  The female voices in the quartet of Coryphées were sadly inaudible from my seat at the rear of the Platea, but in her solo contributions Carolina Varela revealed a narrow but sweet soprano with impeccable style. 

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

Gianluca Capuano led the house forces in music that is clearly unfamiliar to them, given how long it has been since the last time the score was heard here.  Even though this was the third show of the run, it did sound like they could have used some more rehearsal – there were more than a few moments where coordination between stage and pit went somewhat awry.  It was great to hear the strings playing without vibrato and tuning was admirable all night.  That said, the start of Act 2 did threaten to come off the rails a bit, with the violins not quite unanimous in attack.  Having Roberto Gabbiani’s chorus sing upstage for much of the evening, meant that their singing lacked somewhat in impact.  The sopranos certainly vibrated generously, to the extent they didn’t always agree on pitch.  Capuano’s tempi were sensible, by and large, pushing forward and finding drama – there were a few moments, though, where tension sagged, particularly as we got to the dénouement in Act 3.  The closing ballet was surprisingly cut, as indeed it was in Munich.

Photo: © Fabrizio Sansoni / Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

I must admit to finding this a rather mixed afternoon.  The choral singing was, it must be said, disappointing, while the orchestral contribution did have much of interest, but also felt that a few more rehearsals might be required.  Capuano’s conducting was sensible, well-paced for the most part, but there were a number of moments where stage-pit coordination went astray.  Cherkaoui’s staging is visually impressive, but I feel that it remains an interesting experiment, rather than a character-focused and led insight into the work.  That said, today was special due to Gatell’s ease of tone on high, and especially for Viotti giving us a statement of intent, combined with her assumption of Alceste as a big-hearted, passionate woman, with so much to give.  The audience responded with warmth and particular cheers for Viotti and Gatell.

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