Reviewed by James Karas
The current production of Gluck’s Alceste at the Palais Garnier by the National Opera of Paris has an unusual section in the credits page. It lists five cartoonists and erasers.
The production is a reprise of Oliver Py’s 2013 staging and it is simply outstanding.
French soprano Véronique Gens gives a superb performance as Alceste, the woman who is prepared to die so that her husband Admetus may live. Gens has a flexible but strong voice and she sings and acts a powerful and sympathetic Alceste.
Staphane Degout and Veronique Gens. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou
Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac plays a youthful-looking and rather straight-laced Admetus. He is a hard character to take. When the gods tell him his time on earth is up but he can stay alive if he can find a replacement for himself in Hades he goes for it. His wife steps into the breach. Admetus’s conduct is not de Barbeyrac’s fault and the singing is all his.
Baritone Stéphane Degoot made an awesome High Priest of Apollo and an (almost) comic and stentorian Hercules. The High Priest calls for an authoritative voice becoming his position and Hercules is a braggart who can easily be made into a buffoon. Degoot did splendidly in both roles. In high hat and dressed in black, Hercules was kept within decent bounds even if he does produce a dove out of his hat.
Bass Tomislav Lavoie handles the roles of Apollo a herald and the bass Coryphaeus or Leader of the People with Kevin Amiel singing the tenor Coryphaeus and Chiara Skerath the soprano Coryphaeus.
The Orchestre des musiciens du Louvre Grenoble was conducted by Marc Minkowski, one of the masters of the baroque repertoire with remarkable results.
The most interesting aspect of the production is Py’s approach. The production is aggressively black and white. Staircases are rolled on and off the stage. In the opening scenes, the about-to-die Admetus is shown in a hospital bed. Francois Lis who doubles as the voice of the Oracle and a god of the underworld wears a white hospital coat and gives a heart massage to Admetus as if he just suffered a heart failure.
Stanislas Barberyac as Admetus. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou
The palace of Thessaly is a very busy place and that is without taking into account the home decorators. They are the five cartoonists that are kept busy almost throughout the performance sketching with chalk on huge black panels on the back and sides of the stage. They also have a penchant for writing brief messages such as “La mort n’existe pas” when Hercules is around and “désespoir politique” when Alceste is grieving for her husband and children.
The bulk of their sketching is of various subjects such as the Palais Garnier usually using long sticks to reach the higher points of the panels. As soon as something is drawn, the sponge mops come out and it is erased. There is a danger of watching the cartoonists instead of the singers. In other words it was interesting but perhaps over the top.
The idea must have originated with Set and Costume Designer Pierre-André Weitz. He is one of the drawers-erasers and in all fairness the other four should be mentioned: Mathieu Crescence, Pierre Lebon, Leo Muscat and Julien Massé.
Other than some doubts about the efficacy of the sets, I found it a thrilling night at the opera.
Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck opened on June 16 and ran until July 15, 2015 at the Opéra national de Paris, Palais Garnier, 8 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris, France. https://www.operadeparis.fr/