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Scottish Madwoman Trills as Greek Queen Wails in Paris

Sophie Koch and Yann Beuron as Alceste and Admete in Gluck's
Sophie Koch and Yann Beuron as Alceste and Admete in Gluck's "Alceste" at the Palais Garnier in Paris. Photographer: Agathe Poupeney/Opera de Paris via Bloomberg

Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Some wives kill their husbands, others die for them. At the Paris Opera, you can take your pick.

The first premieres of the fall season are Gluck’s “Alceste” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

As with Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” there are Italian versions and a French version of “Alceste.” Naturally it’s the French one, with the opera’s most famous aria, “Divinites du Styx,” that is revived in Paris.

Outside France, “Alceste” is rarely staged. It’s not hard to understand why.

The story -- Alceste, the queen of Thessaly, offers her life to save her dying husband Admete; Hercules intervenes and saves both -- moves at a snail’s pace, and the relentlessly mournful music and choral lamentations tend to be monotonous.

Still, I left the Palais Garnier feeling that “Alceste” may be Gluck’s masterpiece.

Director Olivier Py and set and costume designer Pierre-Andre Weitz, do their best to enliven the static plot.

They have hired five draftsmen who, throughout the opera, fill every available black surface with chalk drawings, wipe them off and start again.

Blank Slate

The singers, too, use chalk to write their more or less profound comments -- such as “Music alone can save us” -- on a slate.

Black is the dominant color. The frantically moving props are black, as are the costumes of the soloists and chorus. Only the dying Alceste wears a white nightshirt.

In the second part, Py puts the orchestra on stage, inviting us to imagine the pit as the underworld. Hercules appears as a magician, complete with top hat and white dove.

The singing is excellent. Sophie Koch may not have the burnished smoothness of Anne Sofie von Otter, who sang the title role 14 years ago at the Chatelet in a production by Bob Wilson, yet she is passionate and touching.

Yann Beuron is an attractive Admete, Franck Ferrari a robust Hercule, and Jean-Francois Lapointe a vigorous High Priest.

Marc Minkowski conducts his period-instrument band, Les Musiciens du Louvre, with his customary zest.

Rating: ***

“Lucia di Lammermoor” is the revival of a 1995 production by the Romanian-born U.S. director Andrei Serban.

He has transposed the Scottish melodrama to the Pitie-Salpetriere, the psychiatric hospital where Jean Charcot used to hypnotize his female patients while a fascinated Sigmund Freud looked on.

At the Bastille Opera, the chorus in the semicircular auditorium, entirely in black with top hats, looks like 50 Abraham Lincolns.

Other scenes seem inspired by the barracks in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” and the “Carceri,” Piranesi’s etchings of imaginary prisons.

Swinging Song

The singing is, again, top-notch. Lucia is one of Patrizia Ciofi’s signature roles. Her big showpiece in Act I, “Regnava nel silenzio,” is sung on a swing -- both that and her mad scene brought down the house.

Edgardo, Lucia’s love interest, is sung by Vittorio Grigolo, one of today’s rising star tenors. He is the owner of a thrilling voice with splendid top notes, yet has trouble scaling it down: At times, he seems to confuse his role with Otello.

Ludovic Tezier is an imposing Enrico, the evil schemer.

Maurizio Benini, who conducted the 1995 premiere, leads a stylish, superbly balanced performance.

Rating: ****

“Alceste” is in repertory through Oct. 7, “Lucia di Lammermoor” (with alternating casts) through Oct. 9. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Scott Reyburn’s art buzz.

What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-so * Poor (No stars) Avoid

More on the arts in Paris: TNI MUSE PARIS <GO>.
Music reviews: TNI MUSIC MUSE <GO>.
Top arts and lifestyle stories: MUSE <GO>.
Bloomberg columnists and critics: BBCO <GO>.

-- Editors: Frederik Balfour, Mark Beech, Catherine Hickley.

To contact the writer of this review: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net

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