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Detail from La Mort d'Alceste ou L'Héroïsme de l'amour conjugal by Pierre Peyron, 1785  (Musée du Louvre)
21 Jun 2009

Alceste by The Collegiate Chorale

The Collegiate Chorale (ably supported by the orchestra of the New York City Opera under George Manahan) chose Gluck’s Alceste, last heard in New York at the City Opera in 1982, for its annual spring concert opera — an excellent choice for a chorus eager to show its stuff.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste

Alceste: Deborah Voigt; Admète: Vinson Cole; Hercule: Richard Zeller; Apollon: Kyungmook Yum; L’Oracle: Ryan Kinsella; Evandre: Gregory Hostetler. Collegiate Chorale and New York City Opera Orchestra, conducted by George Manahan. At the Rose Theater.


That Gluck, halfway between the baroque revival and the Mozartean standards, is on a roll is not news. Orfeo is performed all over the place — it always has been — but in more and more headline-grabbing productions. Iphigénie en Tauride has become almost a repertory item — Susan Graham does it everywhere, and other singers are taking it up. I heard Iphigénie en Aulide in Rome last March (in a production borrowed from La Scala), Armide was recently staged in Berlin, and Alceste will be given in Santa Fe this summer with Christine Brewer. Paride ed Elena is a workout — essentially two singers in a long, aria-by-aria, seduction — so it’s not surprising that that remains a rarity.

In Alceste, Gluck uses the chorus in his stately way to set the scene in his three acts, creating a mood (somber in Act I, joyous in Act II, hellish in Act III) against which the principals create the drama by vivid contrast. In Act I, Alceste resists the helpless sorrow of the people of Thessaly, bewailing the imminent death of their king — she will take action, offering herself to death in her husband’s stead. In Act II, the rejoicing of the populace is again a setting for Alceste, when she admits to her husband what she has done, plunging everyone into mourning yet again. In Act III, the raucous Hercule breaks the spirit of the Underworld denizens and saves Alceste. The chorus is thus fundamental to the action by creating a musical backdrop against which the individual may become heroic. The mass and weight and careful diction of the Collegiate were impressive, though the many solo lines spread among them (Gluck’s idea: so we can take them for individual inhabitants of Thessaly in a national crisis and not just anonymous masses) did not sound of proper operatic caliber.

Alceste usually gets trundled out for some aging, rather placid grande dame — few characters ever lose their cool in Gluck, and Alceste’s emotions are grandly presented — seething beneath a surface of good manners. Technical control and subtle acting are cues for the part — Alceste does not have a huge orchestra to contend with, but she must express her despairs and her resolve with dignity and economy.

Deborah Voigt’s voice was once a technical marvel, though seldom expressive. For whatever reasons (and she was singing through a cold on this occasion), she is no longer fully in control of her voice. Phrases droop from pitch or blare forth undirected. Her famous aria at the conclusion of Act I, “Divinités du Styx,” was sung with full technical command but slight feeling; her quieter, more introspective aria at the opening of Act II was a rare, affecting moment when the singer was playing the part, not simply vocalizing. Voigt has been a fine Cassandre in Les Troyens, a role that would seem to offer a key to a fine Alceste, but on this occasion the music got away from her.

The singer who brought down the house was Vinson Cole, a veteran called in as Admète when Marcello Giordani had to cancel. I heard Cole sing Gluck twenty years ago, in the French version of Orphée, where he was suave, yearning, thrilling, far more effective in the part than the altos who usually sing it (in the Italian version). His Admète was a stunner: the voice so youthful (belying his white hair), so liquid, so lyrically expressive that the opera’s focus became his anguish rather than Alceste’s sacrifice. Richard Zeller made a good roustabout Hercule, Kyungmook Yim was an exciting Apollon (Admète’s friend in high places), and Ryan Kinsella effective as the oracle who decrees the substitution possible. Manahan, in the pit, was always dignified but never boring — the proper style for Gluck.

John Yohalem

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