There’s a natural synergy between early opera and contemporary dance, especially when it comes to the French Baroque with its divertissements and ballets. It’s no surprise then that Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui proves a perfect fit for Gluck’s Alceste, here given in the 1776 revised Paris version where the composer increased the focus on music and movement.
Presented on Henrik Ahr’s simple, architectural set with atmospheric lighting by Michael Bauer, and with Jan-Jan van Essche’s stylish yet timeless costumes suggestive of the Middle East, Cherkaoui does an impressive job of integrating dancers from his own Compagnie Eastman, Antwerp into this 2019 Bayerische Staatsoper staging alongside the Bavarian State Opera Chorus and an excellent solo cast. Props consist of a few ceremonial vessels, some flower petals and some swathes of cloth, and yet nothing here feels minimal, except in terms of a tightly focussed dramatic eye guiding our attention to where it needs to be at any given time. The scene in Hades with swirling smoke and shadowy figures on stilts is hugely effective.
Based on Euripides, the story of Alceste – the Queen of Thessaly who offers her own life if Apollo spares her ailing husband Admète – is both succinct and moving. It’s a fairly static affair, a meditation on love, faith and sacrifice, all of which suits Cherkaoui’s essentially ritual approach. His inventive, fluid choreography culminates in a series of visual set pieces arising naturally out of the action, his singers surrounded by dancers who simultaneously embody the dramatic situation and express their emotions. The latter are conveyed through long-limbed, swirling, sharply fragmented movements. Framing devices, like the suggestion of a wheel of fate improvised from cloth and the breath-taking moment when Alceste is enfolded in silken bands prior to her journey to the Underworld, all flow naturally out of the action.
As Alceste, Dorothea Röschmann is gold-star casting, her full, focussed soprano thrilling in the mighty prayer of surrender, Divinites du Styx, yet able to scale back for more gentle expressions of pity and despair. Charles Castronovo is a heroic Admète, not exactly a ‘period’ voice and often at full throttle, but frequently glorious. Michael Nagy doubles as a smoothly burnished High Priest of Apollo exuding thoughtful authority and an impetuous yet kindly Hercules.
Antonello Manacorda helms the Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra in a propulsive reading of the score, and the chorus – a single instance of dodgy dancing aside – are generally first-rate. The choral voices are rather distant in the mix, but otherwise the sound is excellent with solo voices well balanced against the orchestra. This should appeal to opera and dance afficionados alike. Clive Paget
Performers: Dorothea Röschmann s, Charles Castronovo t, Bayerische Staatsoper/Antonello Manacorda
Label: C Major 756708 (DVD) 756804 (Blu-ray)