Almost all critics of Gluck’s two versions of Alceste – the Italian original, first given in Vienna in 1767, and the French revision or recomposition given in Paris in 1776 – regard the latter as superior: musically richer, more flexible, dramatically more persuasive, deeper in its treatment of the emotions and the humanity of the two central characters. All that is probably true. But having now, for the first time, heard a performance of the Italian version that treats the 1767 text on its own terms, I am not so sure that this, performed as Gluck intended, is really so very flawed. Like the original Orfeo, the original Alceste is an opera pared down, in accordance with Gluck’s and his librettist Calzabigi’s reform principles, to deal with just a single issue: it is concerned exclusively with Alceste’s sacrifice of her life to save that of her husband, Admeto, King of Thessaly, and the emotions that each of them and those around them feel. The French version, in its final form, introduces a third main character, Hercules, who goes to Hades to bring Alceste back: true to Euripedes, but dramatically arbitrary. In the Italian version, it is Apollo himself who intervenes to restore her, which in terms of eighteenth-century opera is much more plausible: the power of love, as expressed in the music (and experienced by us, the audience), persuades the gods to set things right.
The performance here is deftly paced and transparent in its textures. There is no portentousness about Arnold Ostman’s direction. It begins with an urgent, vital overture, with strongly marked phrasing, and with textures that give the wind, including the brass, plenty of prominence: Gluck’s score throughout is a colourful one, with three trombones to add a note of hieratic solemnity and with much expressive writing for the woodwind, which includes cors anglais and chalumeaux. This performance captures the quiet nobility of the ceremonial music; and the choral singing has a good deal of warmth and expressiveness – and there is plenty of it, often in dialogue with the principals (the Act 2 dialogue between Alceste, determined on death, and the Infernal Spirits – reminiscent of Orpheus’s in Act 2 of Orfeo – is particularly powerful). The Drottningholm orchestra – Gluck’s music was heard in that house more than two centuries ago – ensures that the detail of the accompanying textures is clearly heard, and it plays gently and lightly in the dances, whose mood Ostman catches sensitively: they always seem to arise wholly naturally out of the preceding music. Even the brief ritornellos seem full of meaning and emotionally charged.
As in the highly successful L’Oiseau-Lyre Mozart opera recordings from Drottningholm in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the cast is mostly made up of quite young singers. Teresa Ringholz has no pretensions towards being a Flagstad or a Callas or a Baker (to name three rather distinguished Alcestes of the past). Hers is a voice of quite modest dimensions, which she uses in a very natural way, with little vibrato, firm, surely tuned, clear and well focused. She catches Alceste’s increasingly passionate determination, at the close of Act 1, as her resolution to die to save her husband hardens, with its magnificent climax in ‘Ombre, larve’; her monologue in the forest early in Act 2, with flute and oboe, is movingly sung and so particularly is the aria, with cor anglais obbligato, where she sings of dying of happiness. Her controlled, contained manner – there is no outburst of grief when she bids her children farewell at the end of the act, for example – catches well the stylized nature of Gluck’s expression. In that, Justin Lavender, as Admeto, is perhaps slightly less successful. He has a generous tenor – considerably fuller and weightier than that of the other tenor, Jonas Degerfelt, who sings Evandro’s music particularly gracefully and also with vitality – and he brings to the music a good deal of passion, for example in the big scene towards the end of Act 2, where he protests against Alceste’s sacrifice, or the beginning of Act 3, where he envisages life without her. It is powerful and impressive but occasionally threatens to go beyond the scale of the performance as a whole. The smaller roles, such as Ismene and the High Priest, are very adequately done.
There is little that can usefully be said about alternative recordings. The only other version of the Italian Alceste is the Flagstad recording of 1956 (reissued by Decca, 11/93 – nla): Flagstad’s own performance is really one for admirers of Flagstad rather than admirers of Gluck, Raoul Jobin’s Admeto is not very distinguished, and the most stylish singing comes from Alexander Young (Evandro) and Thomas Helmsley (High Priest). All other recordings are of the French version, which is essentially a different work even if about half of it is made up of transcriptions or revisions of items from the Italian. On its own terms, which are close to Gluck’s, this new recording seems to me very successful and it conveys effectively the intensity and the integrity of Gluck’s vision. '