Notes and Editorial Reviews
Recorded in December, 1981, this performance marked one of three farewells the great Janet Baker made from the stage: the other two were in the title roles of Donizetti's Mary Stuart at the English National Opera and Gluck's Orfeo at Glyndebourne. It is a stellar performance, as deeply moving as it is well-sung, and along with Baker, Charles Mackerras ekes every bit of drama out of the I-love-you-more-so-I'll-die-first fugue that stands as the entire plot to this opera.
The edition used is the 1776 revised Paris version, which is more grandly orchestrated and features a bit more majesty than the 1767 original; there's more fanfare, for instance, when Hercules enters. If the truth be known (or acknowledged), in addition to a
great Alceste, you need a conductor who adores the work and who, while acknowledging its Classicism, is willing to give the singers room for rubato and even, yes, thrills. Otherwise the work can be a drag. Only Alceste is an interesting character.
For some reason I was possessed to go back and listen to my recordings of Callas, Jessye Norman, and Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role (as well as Leyla Gencer, but let's save that for another day), and trust me, without a great soprano in the lead (or mezzo, as it happens), we're dead. Among the recordings, only Otter's, with John Eliot Gardiner at the helm, is "correct"; the others all use modern instruments. Gardiner has more zip than any of the other conductors, and the choruses and dances therefore work far better.
But putting Callas in a class by herself and thereby taking her out of the running (as usual), Janet Baker walks away with the honors. Norman pours forth glorious sound but can't touch Baker's sincerity, and Otter is a cold fish by comparison with any of them. Baker's nobility, her heartrending sadness, her railing against the gods (albeit a half-tone lower than the other singers, save in her big aria, "Divinité du Styx", which she sings in its written key), and her utter commitment make for thrilling listening. And the voice, even this late in her career, is still wonderful, with level upon level of pianissimo, always intelligently and tellingly used.
Robert Tear's Admète is as good as possible--elegant, self-possessed, and manly--as impressive in his tender moments as he is when he and Alceste are bickering about who gets to sacrifice and when. John Shirley-Quirk, a stalwart of the '70s and '80s in Decca recordings (think of Britten's operas in particular) is at his best as both the High Priest and an Infernal God. Jonathan Summers stops the show as Hercules, and the small roles are well taken. The chorus is a bit ragged and too big.
Despite the non-historically-correct instruments the remarkable Mackerras manages to lead a performance that never seems turgid or old-fashioned. Yes, some of the pacing is slower than we now realize is both correct and desirable (but probably faster than any of his contemporaries would have opted for at the time), but there's an immediacy to the drama that makes this whole experience very vital, with the severity of the subject matter practically visceral. The string section sounds a bit leaner than normal and the winds have been wonderfully rehearsed and play with great color. The sonics are excellent--true stereo. This is the Alceste to own.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Alceste by Christoph W. Gluck
Robert Tear (Bass),
Mauritz Sillem (Harpsichord),
Dame Janet Baker (Mezzo Soprano),
John Shirley-Quirk (Bass)
Sir Charles Mackerras
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra,
Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus
Written: 1767; Vienna, Austria
Length: 139 Minutes 46 Secs.
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