The joint production of Gluck's "Alceste" by Opera Boston and Boston Baroque moves this grave and beautiful opera out from under the shadow of its historical importance and its history as a diva vehicle and reveals it as thrilling musical theater.
Brad Dalton's staging transfers the action from myth to the human reality of 19th-century religious communes; there is a strong Shaker influence, but one could also mention several films, including "The Village" recently and the video of Peter Sellars's Glyndebourne production of Handel's "Theodora." But Dalton assimilated these influences to produce personal, intelligent, and emotional work. The story and situation are pretty static -- one life sacrificed so another might live -- but Dalton, with the assistance of choreography from Tommy Neblett and Diane Arvanites Noya from Prometheus Dance, keeps the cast in constant compelling motion.
Susan Zeeman Brown's set is a simple, striking communal meeting room, its edges charred by the fires of experience; at key points of crisis burnt support beams collapse into the room.
Rafael Jaen's costumes are severe, mostly in black, but they contribute to strong stage images; for the scene in the underworld, members of the the chorus, now spirits, are cocooned in net. Alceste, the heroine who agrees to die to save her husband's life, casts off her outer garments, removes her jewelry, and spends much of the opera in a shimmering white shift.
Christopher Ostrom's lighting both creates atmosphere and isolates detail with cinematic precision. An unfortunate green episode does suggest that Hades swims in split-pea soup.
The chorus becomes a counterweight to the leading soprano, and 16 singers from Boston Baroque's chorus cover themselves with glory with clear, focused singing; vivid acting; purposeful gesture; and even a bit of line dancing. Gluck would have had a corps de ballet in Paris; the chorus takes over those duties. Only visible set rearrangement fails to convince -- it looks a little bit like cleanup time at the end of a 12-step meeting.
Soprano Nicole Folland creates a moving and sympathetic heroine despite lacking the natural vocal resources this particular part requires. She has a glowing stage presence, moves well, projects feeling with immediacy and sincerity. She sings musically and her timbre has glamor, but she also produces a pronounced vibrato, which puts her at odds with everyone else onstage and in the pit.
The music needs a steady column of sound, especially in the low and middle register, to support forceful and vivid declamation of the text. Folland just doesn't have have the big guns for low-lying phrases, and when she ascends to high climaxes, as during the opera's most famous aria, "Divinites du Styx," her jaw waggles and the tone destabilizes.
The rest of the cast is first-rate, and both baritone Stephen Salters as a high priest, with a larger voice than Folland, and tenor Norman Shankle as Alceste's husband, with a smaller voice, demonstrate the vehemence of diction she couldn't supply. Shankle is a real find, a singer of elegance, grace, and conviction. Salters goes way over the top in his other role as
Bass Kevin Deas pours out ample sound in another pair of roles, and Sumner Thompson's dignity overcomes a white tux that suggests that the presiding god of this religious community is Cole Porter. Charles Blandy and Sarah Asmar sing nicely as leaders of the chorus, and Lily Wisdom and Xavier Leaf Ferreira are delightfully poised as Alceste's children, who are onstage often to show the dimensions of the sacrifice she is making. They are both talented dancers too, although the balletic choreography looks out of place in this millieu.
Conductor Martin Pearlman was unable to follow historical principle and put the orchestra up on the audience's level because of logistics, so the instrumentalists in the pit sound a little remote. But the playing is beautiful and stylish, and Pearlman leads with a fire in his belly that he has sometimes banked. At the end, flowers bloom again in the charred landscape; Alceste, the character, and the opera in which she appears, have come to life again.