Gluck: Alceste

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Royal Opera House Heritage Series
WORKS: Alceste
PERFORMER: Janet Baker, Robert Tear, John Shirley-Quirk, Maldwyn Davies, Philip Gelling, Jonathan Summers; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Charles Mackerras


This new batch of performances from the Royal Opera House’s archives all fully deserve their place in what is becoming a distinguished series. Each set is smartly packaged, including photographs from the production and full notes, as well as the complete text in the original and in English translation. From 1962 there comes a performance of particular interest, one which wasn’t broadcast but which the Earl of Harewood had taped in the theatre. The resulting sound favours the orchestra, though there are some tape drop-outs and the loss of a whole minute at one point; and someone with a slight cough was closer than she should have been to the microphone. However, the performance of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera is so involving that you will soon overlook those minor hazards. Most interesting is the casting of Jon Vickers as Gustavo III, a role he didn’t sing often but to which he brings his usual intensity and sense of unease. Indeed, his characterisation of the doomed king is odd but powerful; some listeners will find his account riveting even when it is unwieldy; others will think he sounds mad, but that’s how it is with Vickers. The under-recorded Amy Shuard (this is the only complete opera set in which she features) is a passionate Amelia, and the cast throughout is impressive, though Ettore Bastianini, the involuntary villain, does less with his voice than he should. Edward Downes proves himself to be a suitably fiery, urgent Verdian. In her last year on the operatic stage, Janet Baker sang the magnificent title role in Gluck’s Alceste, with the scholarly but ardent Charles Mackerras conducting. The result is electrifying, as Gluck well performed always is (as is still so rarely the case). Robert Tear is the husband for whom she is happy to die, and the British stalwarts who make up the rest of the cast show what a fine ensemble it was. Baker is, as always, dignified, grand, commanding, and expert at communicating a grief which you know she will overcome. This is a most fitting tribute to her particular gifts.