It was in 1951 that the Italian director Pier Luigi Pizzi began working in the theatre, and now, incredibly, at the age of 87, and over 65 years later, he is still going strong. Returning to Florence’s Teatro Maggio Musicale for a reprise of a production of Gluck’s “Alceste,” which he originally staged in 2015 at Venice’s La Fenice, Pizzi oversaw its return to the stage, and a splendid job he did too! Moreover, not only did he undertake the role of the director, but he was also the scenographer, lighting director and costume designer.
Pizzi took a traditional approach to the staging, sticking closely to the spirit of the principles outlined by Gluck and Calzabigi, the librettist, when they wrote the opera in 1767. Thus, he ensured that the focus was always closely centered on the drama, shorn of any extraneous distractions. The emotional centre of the work, fixed on Alceste’s reactions to the Gods’ toying with the life and death of Admeto and then with her own mortality, is allowed to develop unhindered. To this end, Pizzi designed simple Classically-inspired sets in white, consisting of columns and arches in an asymmetrical, yet balanced staging. In the centre is a large arch that also acted as a bedroom or as an alter for the Temple of Apollo. There was little movement of the sets, and what did occur was handled in such an elegant and clever way as to make it almost invisible. Dance scenes were delicately choreographed. Costumes were traditional, and also in black and white. In fact, the only additional colour used was the occasional golden touch, such as Alceste’s crown or the backcloth to the bedroom. Scenes were choreographed to ensure that the overall balance on the stage was undisturbed, and that the drama was always acted out centre-stage, elegantly framed by the set and the chorus. The overall effect was to create static scenes against which Alceste’s personal drama was played out. It was all aesthetically very pleasing. However, although Pizzi successfully heightened the dramatic impact, he was unable to compensate completely for the weaknesses contained within the work, which at times lacks the necessary dramatic tension to fully hold the attention, and explains why the modified French version of “Alceste” is often preferred.
A Fine Leading Lady
The opera is, of course, dominated by Alceste, and the singer playing the part carries a heavy burden in determining the success of the production. She is the focal point around which everything revolves. No other character comes even close to her in driving the drama forward. It is Alceste’s predicament, and her pain and her suffering, with which the audience is asked to identify. Even Admeto, the King, whose role is substantial, and has to face a similar dilemma of whether or not to sacrifice his own life for the love of his spouse, is never given the same space to develop. He is not an active agent in the drama, he reacts, but never takes control of events. Moreover, Alceste is a part that requires a singing actress, who is not only able to meet the formidable singing demands of the role, but can also bring alive the anguish and emotional turmoil which Alceste suffers. It really is an opera tailor-made for a Prima Donna to show off her skills, and has consequently attracted the attention of such greats as Callas and Flagstad. For this production at Florence’s Maggio Musicale the title role was undertaken by Nino Surguladze, and although she put in a solid performance and was certainly impressive in parts, she never truly convinced.
Initially, her voice seemed squally in the upper register, and although this quickly disappeared it retained a unpleasant harshness at the edges and was often forced. To a certain extent, however, this failing aided the characterisation of the role, as it added a layer of instability and anxiety to the performance – although it cannot be said to have been exactly welcome. On the positive side, however, Surguladze’s middle and lower registers were in fine shape, from which she elicited a rich array of vocal colours. Her phrasing was intelligently nuanced, inflecting the vocal line with subtle accents to characterise Alceste’s emotional torture and distress. At all times, her acting was of a high quality, which allowed her to bring the necessary authority and dominance to the part. Her final aria “Ah per questo,” in which Alceste sings of her grief of having to leave her children and husband, could be used as an example to sum up her overall performance. Singing with power, charged with deep and heartfelt emotion, Surguladze phrased her lines wonderfully, and brought Alceste’s suffering alive, but as the aria moved towards its conclusion she lost focus and ended up swallowing her words in the process. Thus much to admire, yet ultimately flawed.
Solid Supporting Cast
The rest of the cast, headed by Leonardo Cortellazzi as Alceste’s husband, Admeto, put in uniformly persuasive and pleasing performances. Cortellazzi possesses a well-rounded tenor which he used to excellent effect. His phrasing was thoughtful and precise, exhibiting an attractive timbre. His Act three aria, “No, crudele, non posso vivere,” in which Admeto rages at the Gods for their cruelty was a fine portrayal of despair and rage, in which Cortellazzi’s vocal expressivity was finely displayed, his voice turning on every word to convey his emotional turmoil.
Iseme, Alceste’s confidante, was essayed by Roberta Mameli, who turned in a well-sung and compelling performance. Underpinned by a secure technique, she characterised the role with some splendid phrasing adorned with a wide assortment of colours. Ademto’s confidante, Evandro was played by Manuel Amati, an artist from the Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, who acquitted himself in fine style, producing a well-acted, well-paced portrayal. His is a light tenor with a pleasing timbre which he used with a great deal of expressivity.
Gianluca Margheri played the roles of Apollo and the High Priest of Apollo. His vocal strength and dark timbre brought the requisite authority to the roles, which was supported in no small measure by his commanding physique. Adriano Gramigni, another artist from the Accademia del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, also acquitted himself well in the two roles of Un Banditore and l’Oracolo
Not to Be Overlooked, At All
Gluck’s extensive use of the Chorus made it essential that the Coro del Maggio Musicale under the direction of Lorenzo Fratini put in a good performance, and they did not disappoint. Not only playing the role of a conventional Greek chorus, which commented on the drama as it unfolded, they were also required to play a proactive part as the populace of Fera (in Thessaly), who suffer or grieve or rejoice in their King’s changing fortunes. Under Fratini’s direction their singing was elegant, balanced and refined, and highlighted the rich textures and contrasts of the parts. It was a truly excellent performance. In line with the overall staging, Pizzi arranged the Chorus so that they brought symmetry and balance to the set, standing or sitting for most part in equal numbers in two groups either side of the stage, leaving the central space free for the main drama. Moreover, their movement was restricted to understated, stylised gestures, with exits and entrances being managed in an unobtrusive and graceful manner, the overall effect of which was to accentuate the Classical aesthetic of Pizzi’s staging. Mention should also be made of the four chorus members, Pietro Beccheroni, Sebastiano Siega, Arianna Fracasso and Costanza Mottola, who accompanied Alceste and Admeto in a wonderfully delivered sextet
The Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the direction of the early music specialist Federico Maria Sardelli gave a refined, if slightly understated reading of the score. Occasional parts, such as overture and musical interludes in which the dancers appeared, were given more urgent treatment, but overall Sardelli tended to emphasise the elegance and subtlety of the work, giving primacy to the singers and retaining a tight rein on the tempi.
This production of “Alceste” can be considered largely successful; it was graceful, charming and elegant and aesthetically pleasing. If it did not fully succeed, this was more a fault of the work itself than either Sardelli’s handling of the musical forces or Pizzi’s direction. One final criticism, however, needs to be made regarding Pizzi decision to end the opera with Admeto, Alceste and their children in each other’s arms on a large bed, a stereotypical image of a happy family. This was just too sweet for such a delicate palette!