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How to dust off a classic, and how not to: a tale of two opera houses

By Thor Eckert Jr. / November 3, 1982

New York and Louisville, Ky.

Gluck's ''Alceste'' is one of those works pulled off the shelves and dusted only rarely - most commonly when a great diva wants to try to breathe life into the many pages of music that make up the composer's grand, nobly self-sacrificial heroine.

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Through a most unusual overlapping of schedules, two new productions of this work - almost never heard on these shores - took place this fall. The first was at the New York City Opera in early Oct.; the second, more recently, at the Kentucky Opera Association in Louisville.

Why did these two very different companies choose to do ''Alceste''? In New York, to bring the noted baroque specialist Raymond Leppard to the company as conductor. In Louisville, because general director Thomson Smillie, who was inaugurating his new regime with this production, truly believes in the work.

Alceste, wife of the dying Admete, King of Thessaly, begs the gods to take her to Hades instead of her husband. The gods agree. The horrified Admete follows her to the gates of Hades, where he is joined by his friend Hercule. Together they conquer the furies; Alceste is released from her bargain and the opera ends happily.

Gluck set the tale in long melodies and simple phrases that captured the interior mood of the character at the moment. His was a wholesale rejection of the conventional florid style of opera that placed vocal exhibition above everything. Gluck placed human emotions in the forefront. ''Alceste'' is considered the composer's most noble opera, and it has a pivotal place in operatic history. But not all historically crucial works speak to audiences today. It is easy to make ''Alceste'' appear to be a relic.

How did each company approach the work? In New York, Brian Macdonald, a Canadian director-choreographer was in charge. He seemed to feel, based on the evidence on stage, that the only challenge was to suffuse the story line with movement. For the Louisville production, Mr. Smillie brought in young British director Julian Hope, whose major preoccupation, clearly, was making this tale breathe with real tragedy and joy. He was convinced that all movement had to serve the dramatic situtation at every given moment.

The New York chorus struck bland ''Grecian'' poses, moved up and down the staircase, and walked around in frieze formation. The principals moved from spot to spot, not because it made tremendous dramatic sense, but because motion was deemed less monotonous than having them stand and merely sing. In Louisville, the curtain went up on a haunting tableau of people in deep sorrow; one sensed the entire dramatic power of the moment. And throughout, one saw real characters in intense situations.

Each production indicated quite specifically what its company is really striving for in operatic presentations. Mr. Macdonald gained very little real sense of theatrical magic. His choreography was less than imaginative. In the Hades scene, the battle would have made a high school drama director blush. A sense of Mr. Macdonald's trying to make Gluck speak in today's terms was lost to the expediency of keeping everything moving so the audience would not become bored by the static nature of the work.

But from opening tableau to final dance apotheosis, Mr. Hope was unrelenting in his quest to make every movement serve the drama. The action came out of the music and out of human concerns. There was even a sense of spectacle - one always knew the story was about a king and queen beloved of their people - and a real pathos. He dared to exploit immobility as well, to vivid effect. His decision to transform the closing ballet (choreographed by Alun Jones) into a retelling of the story tied up the opera superbly, giving the ending the glow of triumph.