Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

(Don't) Drag Me to Hell

August 11, 2009

Paul Groves and Christine Brewer
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I love visiting Santa Fe. About half-way through the first show of my current opera festival excursion, Gluck’s Alceste, that sense of relief and excitement hit me. It’s all so beautiful. Of course, this really enjoyable production contributed greatly to the feeling. In fact, despite some obvious flaws, it pretty much made for an ideal evening. Alceste is admittedly an odd opera. The king of Thessaly, Admete, is dying and in a desperate attempt to save his life, Alceste, Admete’s wife, offers her life in exchange for his to the god Apollo who has mandated the need for such a transaction to save Admete's life. Everyone moans about these circumstances for two hours until Hercules suddenly shows up out of nowhere, on break from his many labors, to rescue them both from the gates of hell.

You’re going to have to spice this up a little bit, and Santa Fe Opera, as usual, delivers the goods. First up, they’ve recruited a great cast headed up by the unparalleled Christine Brewer. She was freaking fantastic. All I could think about was how tragic it was that she canceled those met Opera Brünnhildes this year. A lot has been made of her recent health limitations, and it is true that plenty of opportunities are made available for her to be seated over the course of this evening. I've never seen such a ingratiating chorus before, chairs always at the ready constantly offered to leaders. But make no mistake, Brewer is in this to win it. She's up and down, lying on the floor, and kneeling on at least two occasions while singing during the performance. If there are knee problems, you wouldn't know it to look at her. Brewer’s performance alone is worth seeing this show. Meanwhile, Paul Groves sings Admete, a role he’s done in may other venues. He’s a solid and quite convincing actor and vocally agile. There was a little trouble at the high end of his range, but not devastatingly so. He was also pretty game in a sort of goth tunic with red laces at the back and slits in front high enough to get some above the knee bare leg action in a handful of moments. I totally bought Groves and Brewer as a married couple.

Then there is the conceptual production from Francisco Negrin. You’ve got to admire someone who finds room for Spock, Edward Scissorhands, and five dancers dressed like the Jigsaw killer from Saw all in the same opera. The gray stage is surrounded by gently curving walls that later fold together to reveal a stairway to the underworld. There’s also a giant cracked egg that serves as altar, hearth, and other central points. There is some struggle to create the sense of scene changes. Act I has a ridiculous detached wall with a doorway in it that is moved back and forth in front of the egg. The wall is also made of a scrim and sometimes we can just see through it. As with many other things in the staging, you begin to get too wrapped up in what exactly everyone is doing with that stupid wall rather than following the rest of the action. There are dancers that act both as the keepers of the gates of hell and at other times ultra-expressive mourners. It could get a little Rhythm Nation at times if you know what I mean, but the good news is it never looked dull. Apollo and his denizens came off as Trent Reznor's idea of the Greek gods, which only made Herucles' appearance in a baby blue tunic with Dr. Spock wig all the more peculiar. There were saplings in various stages of growth, and bolts of sheer fabric with "la Mort" embroidered on them. It was a lot to handle and in Act III, some of the staging business came off as confused and clunky as everyone tried to manage a seemingly endless amount of activity. In the end Negri tweaks the conclusion of the opera by implying that while Alceste and Admete are given a reprieve from death, it's only for now. Rather than flip the tone of the opera, he wants to drive home the notion of the temporality of human life in the face of the gods as Alceste and Admete are wrapped in the "la Mort" sheet and dragged off the stage again after the celebration. But I'd take this any day over a stand and deliver production. It's fun and interesting and has a point of view.

Alceste is really a very good show and an excellent chance to see Brewer in action. There are two more performances and I imagine from the many available seats at Monday's show, tickets are still available for those who want to go.



ohman. This so makes me wish I'd timed my S. Fe visit to see Alceste instead of to see a friend I didn't get to see anyway. (I swear I'll post about The Letter; my review is about 2/3 written.)
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