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

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.

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.

In New York, Mr. Macdonald had a band of Grecian lads and lasses romping in an endless dance with plastic flower ropes. The king and queen even joined in (a most unfortunate idea), and the dramatically inert evening ended on a risible note. But Mr. Macdonald was not the only shortcoming of the evening. The set was a basic unit framed by columns and bedecked with steps, reducing the playing area (and, more seriously, the dancing space). Somehow, the usually gifted Ming Cho Lee has designed something quite massive and ugly. His only truly effective scene was in the Temple of Apollo, dominated by a huge head of the god. Otherwise, we saw Greek columns, but little genuine atmosphere.

Roger Butlin designed the Louisville set - a fragmented amphitheater dominated stage right by a huge double door in the form of a relief of a seated, headless woman. The cyclorama revealed, on stage left, clouds and a moon. The doors opened to reveal an obelisk transformed into a monument to Apollo; later they revealed a stunning Georgia O'Keeffe-ish worn skull to mark Hades gates. The floor of the stage was a huge raked affair, with a replaceable central circle to denote a sacrifical pit, a marble floor, or whatever. His costumes were superb. In all, a magnificent production - redolent of mood, mystery, and startling imagery. In the pit, Christian Badea suffused the music with all one could ask for in drama and passion. At all times, he showed us just how much opera there was in a score usually performed tediously.

At the City Opera, Mr. Leppard was meant to be the star of the show. He has always said that it was more important to bring music to life than to be merely faithful to old performance practice. But his work with the City Opera orchestra sounded generalized and hasty - lacking texture, beauty of sound, and a deep-rooted sense of the drama to be projected at a given moment. It proved a peculiar sort of showcase for him, given the results.

In Louisville, the US debut of young soprano Mani Mekler, was certainly of interest. Mr. Smillie, the former artistic director of the Wexford Festival in Ireland, freely admits he wanted to do ''Alceste'' to introduce her to the United States. She is a firebrand, a compelling stage presence, and a volatile actress.

Vocally, she had flaws - a medium-size voice with a top pushed to an edgily penetrating loudness and a middle and lower register of uncertain strength. Generally, the rest of the talent was of the local variety, which seems to be at quite a high standard in Louisville.

Heather Harper was making her New York City Opera debut in a role that even some five years ago (when she sang Ellen Orford at the Met) would not have suited her. The voice has lost reliability of pitch since then, and her image is a bit too matronly for the youthful, handsome Jon Garrison, who sang Admete. And his tenor is too light for the demands of role. Vocally, the City Opera's strong men were Scott Reeve, unexpectedly fine of voice and demeanor as Hercule, and William Stone, an imposing High Priest, with debuting Alfred Anderson (Apollon) showing a bass of some fine potential.

I will remember the City Opera ''Alceste'' more for its silly moments than its good points. I will remember that the Louisville ''Alceste'' triumphantly proved that Gluck is magical - a formidable achievement.

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