The eighteenth century. Age of revolutions, the Enlightenment, a boom in the Atlantic slave trade and sometimes when people went to hear Gluck’s operas they ended the evening flopping about on the floor sobbing. These are probably some of the same people who read Werther and decided to blow their brains out in sympathy. Zeitgeist, I guess. Or maybe it was Klopstock. I really don’t know.
There is both a French and an Italian version of Alceste. This is the French version. The plot is very simple. Admetus, the king of Thessaly, is dying. His wife Alcestis asks the gods – specifically Apollo – what she can do to save him, and the reply is that Admetus can live if someone else takes his place. Alcestis volunteers. Admetus is horrified and angry and chases after her to the gates of Hades, and they end up each pleading with the gods of the underworld to accept their own death and allow the other to live. Then Hercules shows up, fights the gods of the underworld, and between the hero’s valor and the great love that Admetus and Alceste have for one another, Apollo is impressed enough to let the two humans live. If you have ever gone looking for an example to illustrate the concept of “deux ex machina” this is probably a good one.
This is one of Gluck’s “reform operas” – I looked it up. So, no da capo arias, no vocal pyrotechnics in the Handel or Vivaldi sense, and no strong distinction between aria and recitative. There is also less repetition of both text and melodic lines. And the chorus gets plenty to do too – more so than in your average eighteenth-century opera.
The Théâtre du Châtelet has staged a production that reminded me of the Sellars version of Handel’s Theodora, in that there is something about it, aesthetically, that is absolutely right on the money, even if what that something is is difficult to articulate. (The production is by Robert Wilson.) The first thing you see during the overture is a deep blue background with a lighter blue triangle on it, narrow part to the left, wide part to the right. Far to the right is an archaic (I am bad with art history, but Polykleitos this ain’t) Greek statue that looks like a kouros. I thought it might be Apollo, but it doesn’t look like most sculptures of Apollo I’ve seen. Perhaps it’s a really early image of Apollo. Besides, kouroi were often associated with Apollo’s shrines. Either way, I suspect this item is Apollo-related. We’ll call it Apollo for the sake of argument.
To the left is a little black box that hangs rotating in the air as if it were falling, but it doesn’t fall – at least not yet. During the scene at the temple (the music that introduces this reminded me, oddly, of some of Mozart’s music in similar scenes in Die Zauberflöte) we get a long lingering look at this box, which in the end descends and becomes the base of Apollo’s statue. In this scene there are also some clear squares on strings that the chorus release and which hang in the air, turning, as Alceste comes to the temple and learns about the one way to save her husband. The box descends again, much bigger this time, during the scene when Alceste admits to Admete what she has done; later, when Heracles comes in, his antics frighten the box, which rises up and away. (Hercules is performed by Dietrich Henschel, the same man who sings the role of the high priest. The singing is first class, but he 1. is costumed so that he looks basically like Evil Legolas and 2. as Hercules, when he comes in he does these sort of kung-fu-movie-style moves with his hands that are unnerving enough that if I were that box, I’d be doing my best to retract into the ceiling too.)
So, there’s a box. It’s there, and it’s solid and you can’t see into it, and it’s always moving, yet stable at the same time, and it’s associated with the gods and does a lot of looming – I would call this a pretty fair representation of how fate feels in this opera. The Greeks would approve.