More than 200 years ago Christoph Willibald Gluck ignited a composers’ revolt against the tyranny of pampered singers and their slavish admirers among the nobility. The vocalists’ penchant for hamming it up had just about banished any semblance of drama from the stages of the little jewel-box opera houses of the period. The audiences were generally glad to go along, as they were there for a divertissement and only occasionally turned their attention to the stage to appreciate a particularly well-ornamented air.
Gluck attacked the vocal excesses of prevalent taste, but he left the stilted plot lines of the period intact, right down to the deus ex machina (in Alceste, Apollo in an elevator). So it’s ironic that Alceste, a product of the revolt against the hegemony of the singer, survives today only as a vehicle for dramatic sopranos.
The plot line is of course rather thin for late-20th-century audiences. In act one the noble Alceste, upon learning that the gods demand a life for a life, unselfishly offers her own in exchange for that of her ailing husband, Admete. In act two her husband recovers and is distressed to discover his wife’s sacrifice. In act three the royal pair argue at the gates of hell over who will be sacrificed for whom (as expected, Alceste wins). Hercules arrives, fights some demons, and rescues Alceste. Apollo rewards Hercules and pronounces a general benediction.
One of the number of reasons more early operas are being revived today is the desire of celebrity singers to show off their talents in novel vehicles in which the singer rather than the composer is the real star. Similarly, directors want to get their hands on relatively virgin material, so that innovations in the production will be met with no worse than blank incomprehension and certainly not the subdued resentment that might greet similar changes in a popular favorite such as La boheme.
Unsurprisingly, the acclaimed Jessye Norman dominates the musical side of Lyric Opera’s production, its first of the opera. This is as it was intended. In the first act her voice seemed much warmer than it does on recordings, but it reverted to a more distant, icy perfection in the subsequent acts. Overall, considering the weakness of the plot and dramatization in this work, Norman’s many fans might have been better served by a concert appearance, which could have featured as much of her singing and been over an hour earlier. Chris Merritt (Admete) generally sang well, except on one or two occasions when he was reduced to shouting. As in his earlier appearances at the Lyric, baritone Mark Doss (Hercules) lacked the resonance and depth that would have given his voice authority. The other principal roles were adequately if not spectacularly sung, though the four solo Thessalonians weren’t pulling together at the top of the second act. The Lyric Chorus–banished from the stage to the pit, having been displaced by dancers–got through their music professionally. Conductor Gary Bertini didn’t seem able to get the best out of the orchestra. The brass section was, as usual, weak, and, surprisingly, there were occasional difficulties in the woodwinds.
Though the show is certainly staged to gratify Norman’s desire for a dramatic backdrop to her vocal talents, I get the feeling that perhaps director and designer Robert Wilson considers his work the true focal point. His staging and set design suffered from a self-conscious, conceited–even pedantic–manner. At the beginning of each act we are given a few minutes to properly admire the sets without the distractions of players or music. Before the first act an enormous copy of a well-known sixth- century BC statue of Apollo (curiously shy a section of his right arm instead of the far more strategic appendage missing on the original) shares pride of place with a rotating black cube–Wilson shows a strong predilection for animated polygons. Light shows are also an important part of his visual preludes.
Wilson’s dancing chorus, choreographed by Suzushi Hanayagi, was intriguing, but it didn’t quite work. The dancers sometimes made aesthetically appropriate movements but were often merely annoying. And Sheryl Sutton, as the Figure, paraded irrelevantly, most often up and down a lighted runway that crossed the stage almost at the footlights; she would also simply appear anywhere with some comment on the action.
But the strong visual elements of the sets and the stately gestures of the players did nothing to enliven the static nature of the opera. Moreover, the costumes by Joachim Herzog were particularly dull; only Norman escaped his touch. Poor Admete, in an opera cape and a mandarin cap, looked like he’d been outfitted at the Salvation Army.
Wilson also suffers from a severe case of “center section, 20 rows back syndrome”–but not everyone in this almost 4,000-seat house will see his work from the perspective of the director’s desk at the dress rehearsal. Of course it isn’t possible to make things perfect for the folks in the second balcony or those sitting against the walls, but even in many relatively good seats, the striking effects of Wilson’s complex visual elements fall apart.
This kind of academic indifference to theatrical effect as well as to the underlying qualities of operatic works and the intentions of composer and librettist has gradually overwhelmed much of contemporary opera production. There’s a job opening for a modern-day Gluck to lead a revolt against the tyranny of pampered directors.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.