Les Talens Lyrique was in Vienna State Opera in their 25th year



Alceste, which is the second mutual work of the opera’s revolutionary composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and his coeval Italian poet and librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi (1714-1795), after the Orfeo ed Euridice opera, has a special place among the composer’s “reform operas”. The duo, that thought opera seria style, which was symbolized in the great librettist Metastasio himself, yet completely blocked now, should be given a new life, wrote revolutionary lines symbolizing the complete separation from the old style in the text they wrote together as a preface of Alceste’s libretto. These are the lines about how opera should be after that time.

According to the text that Calzabigi himself wrote and Gluck signed, in Alceste and the operas that will follow there would be no da capo (repetition) arias, voice shows of the virtuoso singers that draw the audience away from the drama would not be permitted, the repetition of the text inside the aria would be limited, there would be a smooth transition between the recitative and the aria, but in general, the recitative would be decreased and the lines sung would be concentrated on more, instead of the secco recitative of one or two basso continuo instruments, an accompaniment arrangement where all the string instruments are involved would take place, singers’ melody lines would become more fluent and simpler and the overture of the opera would be composed in accordance with the work’s psychological atmosphere and theme.

The introduction lines of the text that Calzabigi wrote as the preface of Alceste’s libretto addressing to Toscana Duke Leopold, is the sententiously expressed version of these explicit and precise instructions. “Your Highness! When I undertook to compose Alcestis, it was my intention to eliminate all the poor conventions which, thanks to the ill-advised vanity of singers and the excessive tolerance of composers, have pervaded opera, disfiguring Italian opera for many years and turning the most noble and beautiful of all dramas into the most ridiculous and tedious. I sought to confine music to its true function of serving poetry by expressing feelings and the situations of the story without interrupting and freezing the action with useless and superfluous ornaments.”

Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787)

In the year 1767, being staged for the first time in Italian at the old Burgtheater in Vienna, Alceste hadn’t got attention in its premiere, and then after Gluck made thorough revisions to the work, this time he had it staged once again in Paris in 1776 on the libretto that Leblanc du Roullet translated from Italian to French. When the work was not well-received again, Gluck changed the last act completely thus giving the opera its final form. So Hercules character was added to the work by Gluck at this stage.

Gluck’s extensive revision on the music and the text of Alceste was almost a kiss of life for the opera. Gluck, who also used his close friend and one of his biggest fans Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s advice for French Alceste which consists of three acts like the former Italian one, disregarded the suggestions that were made regarding the adaptation of the work completely for French taste, but he did not hesitate to integrate short ballet scenes and increase the number of supporting characters who strengthen the richness of the work in terms of drama. Having clearing the way for the French taste to penetrate into the Italian style in opera, Gluck settled in Paris in 1773, composed eight operas for the stages of Paris, Iphigenie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris) among them was liked a lot, but in spite of all this, he left this city that he believes not having had enough support and appreciation from without even looking back.

French version of Alceste by Gluck, who passed away in 1787, in Vienna, where he had spent his last years after leaving Paris, was staged at Vienna State Opera for the first time in 2012, exactly 236 years later. The stage direction which is the mutual production of Aix-en-Provence Festival and Royal Copenhagen Opera bore the signature of German director Christoph Loy who was born in 1962. In that first production, there was Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in the orchestra pit conducted by Ivor Bolton. In the performance that I watched on 21st July 2016, this time Les Talens Lyrique conducted by one of the most important musicians of our day, the harpsichordist-conductor Christophe Rousset took place in the orchestra pit. This pioneer ensemble is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since their foundation in 1991, Les Talens Lyrique left nowhere that they didn’t set foot in French Baroque music repertoire. The ensemble, which had nearly fifty recordings released from Erato, Auvidis, Decca, Naïve, Ambroisie, Virgin Classics record labels, is currently continuing their inquiry in the field of French Baroque music, in the new recordings that they are working on for the Aparté label.        

French harpsichordist-conductor Christophe Rousset founded Les Talens Lyriques 25 years ago.

The plot of Calzabigi’s three act play Alceste, which he inspired from the tragedy of Alkestis and wrote in Italian, is briefly like this: Pherai King Admetos is on his death bed and his subjects are praying to the Gods for him to survive. King’s wife Alceste also joins them and begs to Apollon. Her prayers are answered, yet there is a condition: a person is required to die instead of Admetos. Nobody answers Apollon’s calls. Alceste accepts to die instead of her husband. Hence, Admetos recovers, however, when he learns that his wife sacrificed herself for him, he decides to follow her to death. When the Underworld God is about to pull Alceste into his world, Hercules, who sees how determined this couple to die together, interferes. So, Apollon announces that Admetos and Alceste are saved.

Christoph Loy built a stage that is divided into two from the beginning to the end of the three act opera. The stage that was divided by the sliding, double-leaf door, which was one of the few decorations bearing Dirk Becker’s signature, and on the both sides of the door, people were grieving. The back of the door was the living space of the royal family and the front of the door was the living area of the public. It was known that the king was lying on his sick bed behind the door, but he couldn’t be seen. As for his wife Alceste, she was of course always among the public, as her role requires. In front of the door, in other words the area that was reserved for the public, was left naked in terms of setting. The choir, which I already emphasized above as a very important factor in Gluck’s reform operas, especially in Alceste, was the only element that was filling the large area in the front.

The children that were an important part of the choir were wearing colourful clothes from the early 20th century by Ursula Renzenbrick. Their clothes and the way they acted in a childish manner which suited for their age can be read as a choice to brighten the opera’s dark, in touch with death mood. No matter how this childishness went too far from time to time and damaged the seriousness and the nobility that the work carries, it is obvious that Loy’s perspective brings some action to the work, which is very rich in the musical aspect, yet has a weak libretto and a stagnant tempo. Also, this perspective of the director is directly proportionate with Gluck’s opinions that defend the rich action on the stage in reform operas. We should also underline the weird gestures and mimics of the priest whom Christoph Loy made display the behaviours that make fun of the institution of religion which has an important role in this work.

The vocal wonder of the night at the Vienna State Opera was the French soprano Véronique Gens who sang Alceste.

In the vocal front, the hero of the night was undoubtedly the French soprano Véronique Gens, in the role of Alceste. Being one of the best singers of the tragic female characters in French baroque period operas, Gens donned the role of Alceste, like it was a perfectly fitting dress. With her cream-like voice, perfect pronunciation, diction and impressive acting, she knew how to draw all the attention on herself like a magnet, from the beginning, to the end of the opera. Her interpretation of “Divinites du Styx”, the most known aria of the opera that closes the Act One, in which Alceste interrogates herself if it is really necessary for her to sacrifice herself for her husband or not, was sublime as expected. Likewise, in the aria “Ah, malgre moi” she sings when she decides to sacrifice herself for her husband and says goodbye to her children at the end of Act Two, Véronique Gens portrayed a royal noblewoman, without any exaggerations in her interpretation and gave an impressive vocal and dramatic performance in every aspect.

Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser who was playing the role of King Admète on his death bed, was equally impressive in the aspects of both vocal and dramatic performance. Especially, in the scene when he learned that his wife sacrificed herself for him, his acting was praiseworthy. On the contrary to the children choristers, he was wearing a suit, and this was an example of costume inopportuneness in stage direction. Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka in the role of Hercules and Austrian baritone Clemens Unterreiner in the role of Underworld God (Hades) made an appearance in Act Three, and they both had good voices and gave powerful performances.

Due to his energetic conducting in the orchestra pit, Christophe Rousset managed to accompany the opera, which Christophe Loy tried to energize on the stage, fluently. Like he emphasized in the interview I made with him before the performance, Rousset shortened the accompanied recitatives in order to avert the stagnation in the work, and it can be said that this effort of Rousset concluded successfully and with his way, Alceste was shortened by 20 minutes and became more convenient to watch. Rousset has an indisputable control over the French repertoire, and his interpretation of taking nuances carefully and sensitively in his direction of Alceste, which was turned into a French opera from an Italian opera by its creator himself, was not a surprise for the ones that are familiar with the musician.

The regular audience of Vienna State Opera might have found it odd that not being able to listen to Vienna State Opera Orchestra’s strings and woodwinds of enriching tone and partly romanticised playing style as they are accustomed to listen in the orchestra pit as always. However, Les Talens Lyrique’s velvet-like sounded strings and woodwinds that resonate like a chamber music ensemble, the baroque trumpets that can be regarded as a feast by their fans, presented an enrichment that can’t be found easily when searched, for the ones who enjoy period performance practice.

Serhan Bali



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