Rejecting the Tried and True: Gluck's 'Alceste'

WOO-1405-AlcesteWhat do the 18th-century opera composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and the present day film director Lars von Trier have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out, including a genuine disregard for the status quo.

Lars von Trier is one of today's most controversial movie makers. His recent films include the shockingly explicit Antichrist and the atmospheric Melancholia. The latter is a sort of ode to clinical depression that also depicts the end of the world, which is set to the music of Wagner. If you haven't seen it, just imagine an enormous planned looming majestically over the horizon, and then smashing the earth to smithereens -- with Tristan and Isolde in the background. (Talk about a depressing proposition.) Yet along with the uproar von Trier often causes, he's also made a real mark on contemporary film.

Back in the 1990's, von Trier and some colleagues began a movement called Dogme 95. Distressed by the artificiality of commercial movies, they urged a return to the basics, and implemented a set of directives toward that end. All cameras should be handheld; no artificial lighting or digital special effects were permitted; stories should take place in real time and depict real emotions, without undue histrionics. The movement may not have spawned any mega-hits, but it did bring new attention to the often simpler aesthetics of independent filmmaking -- helping to establish "Independent" as viable movie category all its own, right alongside Action-Adventure, Drama and Comedy on the shelves, and in the search engines.

            In the 1700s, Gluck did something similar for opera, in reaction to the traditional genre called opera seria which had dominated the Europe's opera houses for decades. It was a type of opera in which the singers were the stars, with composers and librettists obeying strict formal and musical contrivances intended to make sure those stars were heard in their full glory -- often at the expense of realistic drama and musical invention.

            Gluck reacted to this by turning to some basics of his own. Calling opera seria; "ridiculous and tedious," he wrote musical dramas emphasizing straightforward musical forms that respected the libretto's story and poetry. He replaced long, technically cumbersome arias with shorter and more direct solo numbers, interwoven with highly-expressive declamatory singing, simple ensembles, and choruses that served a vital role in the story's action.

After playing a major part in establishing Italian opera on the stages of Vienna, Gluck took his reform movement to France -- and he brought his opera Alceste along with him. Originally written in Italian, a new French version premiered in Paris in 1776, and it's not just a simple translation. Thought it retains much of the original music, it also adds a great deal more, and makes a number of significant changes to the drama. The result is a score that's even more audacious than the trendsetting original, creating a remarkable dramatic tension that scarcely lets up from start to finish. Gluck was obviously pleased with the result, once saying the opera "excites me to a frenzy whenever I hear it!"  

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Alceste from the Palais Garnier in Paris. Soprano Sophie Koch sings the title role, with tenor yann Beuron as Admetus, in a production featuring the Musciens du Louvre, led by conductor Marc Minkowski.