Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2015
Guillaume Tourniaire, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Carmela Remigio, Marlin Miller, Giorgio Misseri, Zuzana Markova, Vincenzo Nizzardo, Armando Gabba
Culturebox - 24 March 2015
You could pretty much guess how a Pier Luigi Pizzi production of Alceste is going to look, but just because it's predictable doesn't mean that it can't also be classy and highly effective. So yes, Pizzi's production of the original 1767 Vienna Italian version of Alceste for La Fenice is indeed all robes, neo-Classical pillars and steps and no, there's absolutely no licence taken with the all-important dramatic presentation. The stage might not really amount to much more than a visually impressive, minimally decorated, classically-styled high-impact set, but it impresses every bit as much as the scale of the Greek tragedy that plays out on it.
If there's a concept to the production here, it's on the same grand scale as the mythology. The theme of Alceste is life and death, and the set is accordingly predominately black and white, even the floor a chessboard design, with a few typically bold colours thrown in for additional impact. Within the set, the drama is also played out in a fairly traditional fashion, which in the context of Gluck's opera seria means that there's lots of anguished writhing, outstretched hands and falling to the floor. There's always the danger of the real human sentiments that lie behind the mythology getting lost in all the bold gestures, but the singing can go some way towards making up for it.
It's Carmela Remigio as Alceste who has to take on the burden of keeping this relatively straightforward drama interesting while there is not a great deal happening. Essentially, amid the mourning and lamenting of the citizens of Thessalia, the drama centres solely on Alceste sacrificing herself so that her dying husband, the king Admeto, will be spared by the Gods. For two and a half hours, essentially, we see her preparing for death and then slowly fading away as the Admeto comes to realise the horror of the deal she has made. We get a little more dramatic action in the French revision of Alceste, when Hercules goes down to Hades to bring the queen back, but here, it's a long drawn out decline that is only reprieved at the last minute by the will of Apollo.
Carmela Remigio voice hasn't the fullness of tone that you would normally associate with this kind of opera seria role, but she does succeed in making it feel every bit as tragic and compelling as it ought to be. It is and needs to be a big enough voice to remain dramatic and lyrical and rise above this fully orchestrated version at La Fenice. The Vienna version is more opera seria than stricter reformist revisions made by Gluck in the French, and Guillaume Tourniaire's conducting of the orchestra lacks the kind of edge you get from a period ensemble. There is a harpsichord in there in the accompanied recitative, but it's certainly softened by the strings. It's to the credit of Remigio then that when combined with the attractiveness of the sets, it never becomes too smoothed out or, heaven forbid, soothing.
You can see how far Remigio takes her performance in her farewell to the world aria (or, the first of them, the moment she decides to sacrifice her own life for her husband, because essentially, it's one long lament thereafter), in the aria 'Non vi turbate, no', which brings tears to her eyes. Pizzi's set, making only slight changes for each of the acts and never straying too far from the classical temple setting, helps establish the mood well here. Alceste wanders out into the forest at night in Act II, a blue tint in the lighting matching the tone, a tree with a pile of skulls capturing the matters of life and death that are to be mulled over. In contrast to Act I, Thereafter, Alceste's robes change from flowing white to constricting black, while her neatly tied up hair is loosened and freed.
There's only so much the remainder of the cast can do to add to the atmosphere, her children sobbing in the embrace of Ismene, as well as delivering a heartfelt lament. The other major contribution here however comes from Marlin Miller's wonderful singing and characterisation of Admeto. Again, the voice isn't a typical opera seria voice and ther recitative singing can sometimes seem a little declamatory, but there's a beautiful heartfelt lyricism here too, a regal dignity in how he deals with the situation, a sincerity in his protestations that he couldn't possibly live if it means that his wife must die in his place. Together, Remigio and Miller really highlight the nature and severity of the dilemma faced by the king and the queen.
This is a beautiful interpretation and a handsome production of Alceste at La Fenice. It's not radical by any means, it doesn't quite give you a sense of how revolutionary Gluck's score was, not in this early Italian version anyway, even though it was here that the composer and his librettist Calzabigi laid out their ideas for the reform of opera in its preface, but - as with Orfeo ed Euridice - it shows what two strong central performances can make of such a work with a solid supporting production behind them.
Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice