gluck alceste pristine

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787)
Alceste (English trans. of the 1776 Paris version)
Alceste – Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
Admète – Brian Sullivan (tenor)
High Priest of Apollo – Frank Valentino (baritone)
Oracle – Alois Pernerstorfer (bass-baritone)
Évandre – Emery Darcy (tenor)
Herald – Norman Scott (bass)
Woman – Anne Bollinger (soprano)
Thanatos – Osie Hawkins (bass)
Leaders of the People – Lucine Amara, Margaret Roggero, Thomas Hayward, Luben Vichey
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Alberto Erede
rec. live, 29 March 1952, radio broadcast Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Ambient Stereo
Pristine Audio PACO199 [2 CDs: 132]

In my recent survey of the best recordings of Gluck operas, I was not especially enthusiastic about Flagstad’s 1956 studio recording of the Italian version. This, however, is a live performance from the Met four years earlier in an English translation with a superior cast and a somewhat younger Flagstad. Although the eponymous heroine is addressed as Alcestis and the king as Admetus, the opera is oddly designated as Alceste and the names of the leading cast-members are in the cast-list in their French guise, presumably because this is a translation based on the 1776 Paris version but cut by about twenty-five minutes – and there is no intervention from Hercules. This set has previously been available on the bargain Walhall label but this Pristine transfer will undoubtedly be sonically superior to that.

Being an afternoon radio broadcast from the Met, it is introduced by Milton Cross who explains that this is Flagstad’s farewell to the American stage, seventeen years after her debut as Sieglinde and the big event of the season, with long lines, round the block, of punters hoping for tickets.

The grandeur of conductor Alberto Erede’s direction is immediately apparent in the sonorous, stately overture, its impact much enhanced by the application by of Ambient Stereo XR remastering. It is also noticeable how clear and comprehensible is much of the English text, especially given the pellucid diction of most of the cast-members, even if Alois Pernerstorfer’s brief contribution reveals rather heavily Teutonic pronunciation. This enables the listener to follow the simple plot without a libretto. Erede’s conducting also encompasses the charm of Gluck’s score in passages such as the lovely pizzicato melody in Act II, track 5, CD 2, ”Adorn your brows”; he seems to me to be in complete command of Gluck’s idiom; even the concluding ballet music is infused with energy and for the most part he invests the music with great dignity without sacrificing propulsion. Knowing him only as a conductor of Verdi, I was pleasantly surprised.

Flagstad was approaching 55 years old here and singing Alcestis for the first time. It is not a role demanding pyrotechnics or histrionics, but rather a refined, classical style and line which invest the words with deep emotion. Flagstad embraces the manner authentically and the critics were uniformly rapturous about her five performances with one exception, who noted “…as Mme. Flagstad began last night, one was a trifle apprehensive. But the voice soon warmed, gained firmness and resonance, and impact.” While I hear much which is mightily impressive, perhaps it is sacrilege to say it, but I am not always as enraptured: not everything is uniformly steady or sweet-toned and the core of her voice can occasionally emerge as harsh. Of course, the sound is huge and all-enveloping, especially the secure, ringing top B-flats, but they sometimes carry a shrill edge and the effort to produce them is apparent. “Gods of eternal night” (“Divinités du Styx”) is appropriately a highlight, however, sung with great expressivity, pathos – and courage. Her best moments are in the plain, unadorned laments such as “Life without you is not worth living” and she clearly identifies profoundly with Alcestis’ turmoil.

The supporting cast and chorus are strong; Frank Valentino brings a strong, grainy baritone to the role of the High Priest, singing with admirable stamina; Norman Scott’s Herald is similarly forceful. The young Brian Sullivan has a firm, even tenor and does not sound over-awed by his task; a certain constriction in his tone soon lifts and he is certainly the most attractive tenor I have heard in the role.

The quality of the broadcast tape on which Andrew Rose has worked must have been high; there is very little distortion and few extraneous noises from the audience; the resultant Ambient Stereo product is admirable in its depth and clarity.

Ralph Moore

Availability: Pristine Classical