Love, fear, faith - an everyday tale

Scottish Opera's new production of Gluck's Alceste represents a binding humanity that cannot fail to touch the heart.
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The Independent Culture
Although Gluck's Alceste is known more for its preface than for its performance, Scottish Opera's new production, which opened at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow on Tuesday, is material proof that the piece is worth dusting down from the shelf of academia to take its place with pride on the contemporary operatic stage. Apart from putting into practice Gluck's theories, which steered the course of operatic history into the more interesting territory of heightened integration between music and drama, Alceste possesses some stunningly charming music and an uncomplicated but emotion-laden, well-told story, as valid to audiences today as to those of late 18th-century Paris.

In telling it, the director and designer Yannis Kokkos - last seen at Scottish Opera for a highly acclaimed Tristan und Isolde - takes an approach that is honest and forthright, letting the music reveal the drama of the love between Alceste and her ailing husband Admete, the king, and how she is prepared to die to let him live. In Isabelle Vernet, utterly convincing as the queen, and Mark Padmore, Scottish Opera has cast a curiously matched pair. Hers is a big, full- bloomed and, it seems, constantly impassioned voice, while his is slighter, nicely reedy and possibly more in accordance with the conductor Nicholas McGegan's fastidiously detailed interpretation of the score.

Reinforcing the ever-present force of death in the Greek myth of the Euripides play from which Alceste is taken, much of Kokkos's staging is dark. Dimly lit, more or less everyone, bar the priests of Apollo, is dressed in black. Most effective is the chorus, their solid block of colour never static, but fluid and malleable in its slow, deliberate stylised movement. They sit, they rise, they comment, they freeze to witness the story unfold, and best of all they sing with controlled commitment, even balance and a poignant beauty.

It is difficult to tell where Kokkos has set his Alceste. Spain comes to mind through the vast stadium-like temple wherein sacrificial death suggests parallels with a bull ring and the bright red scarves of the dancers below an incongruous strand of fairy lights in Act 2. But it does not matter. What does matter is that this Alceste represents a binding humanity that goes beyond specific time and place - and, more importantly, that Kokkos draws his audience directly into it. The missing arc of the circular temple, for instance, is left for the auditorium to complete. Universal feelings of love, fear, faith and relief are portrayed with a simple purity that cannot fail to touch the heart.

If there is a sagging, it is in Act 3. A tall, thin Hercules - who, of course, manages to save the day in winning both Alceste and Admete their lives - is a rather unbelievably wimpish hero, not helped by the orchestra overbalancing Matthew Elton Thomas's lightweight voice. Design touches here, too, are somewhat lost, the dim lighting of the Underworld masking the dark wings of the Figure of Death and the bald, gold-painted head of Thanatos, both only clearly seen as the cast take a much-applauded bow.

n Scottish Opera perform `Alceste' at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on 10, 30 April and 30 May. Booking: 0141-332 9000