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Classical: Gardiner tries his Gluck

GLUCK STILL has the reputation of writing operas in which nothing much happens, to the accompaniment of lovely tunes. Didn't he set out in the 1760s to reform opera in the name of "good sense and reason", and aren't reformers always too earnest for their own good?

We should take a leaf out of Mozart's book and actually listen. As an 11-year-old Mozart attended performances in Vienna of Alceste (Gluck's second "reform opera"), and the experience left a lasting impression. Even now, it's hard not to hear Mozartean pre-echoes, right from the overture, where rasping horns and trombones evoke Don Giovanni.

But if we only look at Gluck through the prism of Mozart, we're bound to come away disappointed. As John Eliot Gardiner's concert performance last Tuesday demonstrated, Alceste can stand on its own. Gardiner gave, not the 1767 version that Mozart heard, but the revision which Gluck made for Paris a decade later. This is generally reckoned more dramatic, and even in concert the work's pervading gloom grips so compulsively that the happy ending appears anti-climactic: after two-and-a-half hours of such exquisite anguish, the stage should be littered with corpses, not with bright-eyed revellers.

Well, that's genre for you. Gardiner brought the opera to the Barbican after staged performances at the Chatelet in Paris, so the chorus (the always excellent Monteverdi Choir) and most of the soloists did without scores, which enhanced dramatic immediacy. However, the fact that the concert was being recorded for CD restricted interaction between singers, who had to tiptoe into position as if frightened of waking somebody. On the other hand, that served to emphasise Alceste's isolation as she realises that only she can save Thebes, by dying in place of her husband Admete.

The opera has two main characters, Alceste and the chorus. Everyone else, even hubby Admete, has a support role to play. In the title role, Gardiner had Anne Sofie von Otter, a cooler, lighter singer than such eminent Alcestes as Maria Callas, Kirsten Flagstad and Janet Baker. That is not to diminish a performance that slowly grew in intensity so that by the time of the aria "Ombres, larves" (variant of "Divinites du Styx") that closes Act One, the sense of a woman cornered was wrenchingly immediate.

Von Otter plucked neurotically at her dress, held out her arms imploringly, and sang with that paradoxical combination of fervour and statuesque dignity that makes her such an enigma. As Alceste and Admete approach Hades, Von Otter's ardour was matched by the pleasingly light-grained tenor of Paul Groves, but it was the singers of the Monterverdi Choir who did most to provide a real vocal counterpoint to Alceste's suffering.

Gardiner knows how to drill his troops, and both chorus and orchestra (the English Baroque Soloists) proved to be virtuosic in every department. Lyrical moments expanded gorgeously, but always with an underlying urgency. In such a performance, Gluck's limitations recede and we come face to face with genuine music drama. Now what about a proper staging?