A self-sacrificing queen at death’s door and an early operatic rarity both found new life Saturday night at Harvard’s Memorial Church, when Edward Elwyn Jones led Harvard University Choir and period-instrument ensemble Grand Harmonie in a concert performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Alceste in its 1776 French revision.
Following soon upon the success of his still-popular Orfeo ed Euridice, Gluck originally composed Alceste to Italian text by Orfeo librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi in 1767, while he was still in service to the Habsburg court in Vienna. Holy Roman Emperor Francis I died in 1765, and, in her mourning, Empress Maria Theresa suppressed musical activity at court. With Alceste, Gluck and Calzabigi drew from a classic of conjugal devotion, Euripides’s Alcestis, in clear tribute to the Empress, to whom they dedicated the opera, while advancing their vision for operatic reform.
The publication of Alceste in 1769 included a veritable manifesto on the operatic reform that Gluck and Calzabigi advocated (on which Edward Elwyn Jones has elaborated HERE). In clear opposition to Metastasian excess, reform operas henceforth would eschew gratuitous ornamentation. Instead of da capo arias with long melismas and flights of fireworks on repeated texts that served no purpose but to indulge virtuosity, music would propel dramatic action and genuine emotion. Gluck and Calzabigi had already integrated these aspects into Orfeo, their first reform opera. Now they not only spelled out explicitly their philosophy, but pushed on with an opera that, in keeping with the somber mood at court and the recent rise in serious theatrical criticism among Viennese élite, delved deeper and darker than before.
Some contemporaries found Alceste too unrelentingly somber, even “pathetic and lugubrious beyond all measure.” Yet, as Jones observed in his notes, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, and Richard Strauss all drew inspiration from Gluck’s depiction of an inconsolable Classical heroine facing down the terrors of mortality.
Thus, in an evening of mostly competent musicianship, the greatest disappointment was a lack of dramatic impetus. Concert performances of operatic repertoire can provide excellent opportunities to highlight the drama inherent in the music itself, without any distraction of stage spectacle. For a piece that its creators intended as Exhibit A of drama-driven music, Saturday’s show rarely reached beyond the realm of politely pretty.
In the title role, soprano Hailey Fuqua set the tone — melodiously melancholy throughout, with little emotional variation until a few passages towards the end. Lyrical and lovely in her tristesse, Fuqua wields a fine instrument. One sympathizes with the need to pace oneself through a musical marathon, but one also fantasizes about how she might have expanded her range with more dramatic direction to spread her shadings from grief and despair to defiance and grim resolve.
As Admète, the king-husband for whom Alceste volunteers to die, tenor Jonas Budris, himself a Harvard University Choir alumnus, delivered a complementary, almost-uniformly tender and warm interpretation, albeit occasionally strained in his upper register. Baritone Sumner Thompson, outstanding as the High Priest and Hercule, consistently brought the heroic urgency one craved elsewhere from other performers. Christopher Talbot as Thanatos and Apollon, the uncredited Évandre, and several of the chorister-soloists rendered laudable service. Grand Harmonie played with vigor and a generous spirit of supportiveness, although now and then a shaggy entrance or a sandy unevenness in the upper strings pleaded for more rehearsal time. Woodwinds, especially with extended flute and oboe obbligato passages, carried much of the evening, and the gloriously funky brass section could melt the gates of Hades and make Thanatos himself crack a grin.
For an amateur student ensemble,* Harvard University Choir delivered a capable and at times inspired reading of a worthwhile rarity. Clear-toned and well-blended, the choir shone brightest when Jones led at a brisker pace. One wonders what more all involved could achieve with perhaps a bit more honing of French enunciation, a theatrical advisor to coach and coax if not semi-stage the dramatic elements, and even just a week more rehearsal. Jones and Harvard University Choir deserve applause for ambition; one hopes other revivals of Gluck’s death-defying queen will soon follow.
* While choristers receive stipends and are therefore technically professional, one hesitates to compare them to the Oxbridge collegiate choirs or, in closer vicinity, Yale Schola Cantorum, which draws heavily from the rising talent in Yale’s School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music.