When the historic Theatre du Chatelet in Paris re-opened after a period of extensive refurbishment, the first two productions mounted in the theatre were Gluck's Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice. Both operas were sung in their French versions and were mounted and designed by Robert Wilson and conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. This was the first time Wilson and Gardiner had collaborated and their individual credentials combined to produce an exceptional result. American polymath Wilson was responsible for some of the most ambitious avant-garde performance projects of the 1970s and 80s.Since the mid-1980s he has increasingly brought his prodigious creativity to works fiom the standard dramatic and operatic repertoire, transforming them into his own unmistakably minimalist yet grandiose visions. His styled, classical interpretations of Alceste and Orphée bear his trademarks of an uncluttered stage and the arresting use of colour and light. They are not so much timeless as, in Robert Wilson's words, 'full of time'. With their minutely rehearsed gestures, at once formal and poetic, the singers have the grace and elegance of Balanchine or Martha Graham dancers. A key figure in the revival of Early Music, John Eliot Gardiner has long been a champion of Gluck's French operas and is a great Gluck conductor. He received enormous critical acclaim for his musical direction of both Orphée and Alceste at the Chatelet, as did his orchestras and chorus. He sought to rid the operas of any vestiges of remoteness or venerable respectability and to release the huge emotional charge that lies behind the beauty of Gluck's classical sobriety. The stories are, after all, he says, not only poignant and deeply moving, they have an immediate and contemporary relevance: they portray two married couples striving to protect their union and their love, plumbing the very depths of their emotional strength and summoning the courage to make huge personal sacrifices. 'If presented in a way that's immediate and with tremendous intensity and truth of expression then all the dross and superficiality of the stage action falls away and you're left with what's actually a very visceral connection between two living people.' Television's top opera director, Brian Large, worked closely with Robert Wilson and John Eliot Gardiner to ensure that the translation of live performance to the small screen is of the highest artistic and techcal standard. John Eliot Gardiner chose Gluck's 1776 French version of Alceste for Robert Wilson's production, conducting the piece for the first time with his period-instrument ensemble, the English Baroque Soloists. The excellent Monteverdi Choir provides the chorus and, unusually, they sing fiom the pit, with dancers taking their place on stage. They give magnificently persuasive expression to the horror and compassion demanded by the drama. The `Greek geometric perfection of Robert Wilson's various tableaux is beautifully realised, with his eye for striking theatrical symbol creating an intriguing visual arena for one of Gluck's most elevated and sublime works. Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, one of the finest singers of her generation, takes the title role of Alceste, Queen of Thessaly, who offers to die at the hands of the gods in place of her husband, Admete (Paul Groves), so that the people will not lose their king. To universal astonishment, she is saved from the Underworld by Hercule (Dietrich Henschel), whose action is sanctioned by Apollon (Ludovic Tézier) in a dramatic deus ex machina.
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