Cher Public

Suivez-moi dans le temple

jessye-normanFor all those who have enjoyed “Trove Thursday” during its first year, I apologize for its absence the past four months but some health challenges have prevented me from posting. But 2017 happily brings its return with a rare and enthralling live performance of Gluck’s Alceste featuring Jessye Norman in epic form in the title role. 

Once in a while I’ve been able to post performances that I attended and this opening night broadcast of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 1990-91 season was the last time (so far) I’ve been to Lyric. During the 1980s when I still lived in the Midwest, It used to be that single tickets to Lyric were nearly impossible to obtain due to the company’s huge number of subscribers. But Opening Night was always fairly easy to purchase and afforded me the opportunity to attend this grand Alceste as well as one of Cecilia Gasdia’s rare US appearances in La Sonnambula in1988.

Norman’s US opera career took place nearly entirely at the Met; this performance was her Lyric debut and her only role with the company and possibly her only onstage appearances as Gluck’s heroine, an ideal Norman role.

I was never entirely happy with her recording on the Orfeo label but this Chicago outing finds her in superb form, perhaps inspired by working with Robert Wilson who directed and designed the production and with whom she often worked in Europe. I remember hearing that the Wilson Alceste would come to the Met with Norman several years later but that it was dropped in favor of the Elijah Moshinsky Ariadne auf Naxos. Does anyone know if this was indeed the case?

The edition used here is Gluck’s 1776 much-revised French version rather than that of its premiere in Italian in Vienna in 1767. The often uneven Chris Merritt (in good form here) sings Admete, Alceste’s initially self-absorbed husband, and in the small role of Apollon one notes future Wagnerian Gary Lehman—whatever happened to him?

Lovers of this opera should also check out the broadcast recording of the era’s other great Alceste—Dame Janet Baker—conducted by the marvelous Sir Charles Mackerras.

Enjoy. It’s good to be back!

Gluck: Alceste
Lyric Opera of Chicago
24 September 1990

Jessye Norman — Alceste
Chris Merritt — Admete
John Brandstetter — High Priest
Mark S. Doss — Hercule
Michael Wadsworth — Oracle
Gary Lehman — Apollon
Philip Zawisza — Herald
Bruce Fowler — Evandre

Gary Bertini – conductor

  • PCally

    I wish Norman had managed to take this role to the met. In 1993 I imagine it would have suited her far better than Ariadne and it would have been such an excellent opportunity to put on an relatively neglected opera (in the U.S. at least). I also find her recording of the role to be somewhat mixed so I’m happy at how absolutely magnificent she sounds here. Was this the production Voigt understudied? I think she’s spoken about working with Wilson on this opera at least a couple of times.

    • Lindoro Almaviva

      Yes, it is my understanding that Voigt was the understudy for this production. Shame she did not sing the role often (I think she did a concert version several years later)

      • John Yohalem

        She did. She was awful.
        And Norman was a fine Ariadne — which does not alter the fact that she would have been a splendid Alceste as well.

  • Mr. Corwin: Great to see you and “Trove Thursday” back, especially with my first diva.

    Wilson and she are friends and I think there’s a lot of mutual admiration between them.

    I imagine that Wilson’s directorial style suited her well. She excelled at the stillness and deliberate, slow movements which Wilson demanded of his singers.

    Even as recently 2005, when she was pretty much done with staged opera, she appeared as Sieglinde in a Wilson production (in Paris).

    Anyway, I’ve never heard this performance having only heard her sing the aria. I’ve heard the role suited her very well. Thank you for sharing!

    • PCally

      Had no idea Norman was still singing opera in 2005, that’s pretty amazing

      • And I’d completely forgotten her singing Sieglinde in Wilson’s Ring. I saw Petra-Maria Schnitzer.

        • PATRICK MACK

          As I recall there was drama because La Jessye was ill for the Met Ring studio sessions and was a very late arrival. I don’t hear flatness at all on that recording (and frankly it’s something that DG would have whisked under their sonic rug) but I find the latter portrayal far superior to the earlier under Janowski. The difference of 9 years from the age of 36 to 45 finds her with a far more voluptuous tone and greater command of the breath. She’s almost pallid by comparison on the Eurodisc and I have the same reaction to her earlier Liebestod under Colin Davis as the more mature version later under Tennstedt.

      • I can’t vouch for her success in the part (though in her prime, she sang the part gloriously, whatever issues one may have with her interpretation). I don’t know if I’ve ever read any reviews of that 2005 Sieglinde. Much as I am a fan, I know her limitations. And by 2005, her soprano days (even with a low-lying role like Sieglinde) were at least 10 years behind her. Now, a Fricka circa 2005 would have far more appeal to me. I think she would’ve rocked that role.

        • PCally

          hmm well her performance in the audio recording of the Levine ring is not particularly well sung, flat much of the time and noticeably lacking in bloom when compared to the earlier Janowski performance where she truly does sing gloriously. Someone suggested on this site (mrsjohnclaggart possibly) voiced the opinion that Janowski should have cast her as Brunnhilde on that recording and I actually think in 1980 she could have most certainly nailed the part, at least on a recording, especially since the Brunnhilde on that recording is one of the few genuinely weak links on that otherwise solid recording. The met video is better than the CD IMO but then, as you say, her interpretation is not universally loved (I don’t really care for her, though it’s by far the most glamorous sound to be heard on that video).

          • Yes, she’s much better in the live Met video than in the studio recording which followed.

            • marshiemarkII

              well kashania, today is not your day for facts. The studio recording did not follow the video, not by a long shot. The studio recording was made at the end of the 1986-87 season when the production premiered with Altmeyer as Sieglinde, that is in April/May of 1987. In fact it was released that day of the dress rehearsal of Gotterdammerung in October 1988, I remember well the party at the Belmont room, immediately after the rehearsal was over. Jessye would not sing the part on stage until the end of that season, that is March of 1989, and once it was decided at the last minute to be televised, she obviously got the telecast. The telecast was not planned until the last minute, when an anonymous donor came through with the money for the telecast, but the absolute clause it had to include the greatest Brunnhilde, for all three operas, which caused the bruhaha with Marton at exactly that same time, winter/spring 1989, as she was told at the dress rehearsal of the premiere of the new production of Salome

            • Luvtennis

              I still think her VLL with Masur is some of the greatest singing I have ever heard. Her Beim
              Schlafengehen is like a glimpse of the joy beyond this world. Even though she was once very very nice to me and then later very very mean. Lol!!!!

            • Have you heard this live recording from a couple of years earlier? It’s not as deluxe sounding as the studio recording with Masur. But it’s nice to hear that she could manage that great crescendo live as well.


          • Luvtennis

            I have mixed feelings about Altmeyer. Clearly overparted in many places, there is something perfect about her timbre and her vulnerability. Anne Evans accomplished much of this and more, but Altmeyer is not entirely neglible. In my opinion, of course.

            • PCally

              I don’t really mind Altmeyer per se and it’s certainly and inherently youthful sound, rare in Brunnhilde on recordings. But she hadn’t sung the role onstage at all when she recorded it and IMO it’s pretty obvious she hasn’t figured out how to work the role into her voice in a way that makes it sound at all comfortable. She’s over parted for basically the entirety of Gotterdammerung, has nothing much to say dramatically beyond sounding more youthful, and her German is frankly horrendous. Certainly there have been far far worse and Altmeyer is IMO significantly better in the DVD Amsterdam 18 years (!) later (overparted still but able to work the role into her voice more thoroughly and pace herself) but she’s noticeably mediocre in a female cast that includes Norman, Minton, Schwarz, Popp, and Studer, all fantastic in admittedly less challenging assignments. And the comparison with Evans isn’t really on point. I saw both women live, admittedly not as Brunnhilde, and while Evans voice didn’t always project it was clearly something faulty in technique as opposed to vocal size. Altmeyer was an overparted lyric soprano sounded stretched from the minute she started singing and who ran out of gas a good ten minutes before her scene (and the role was Venus, not a particularly long role).

            • Luvtennis

              I don’t think there is anything in my post to contradict what you say.

        • La Cieca

          Well perhaps. The issue I see is that Fricka’s tessitura is actually somewhat higher than Sieglinde’s, centering right in that upper-middle area where Norman has always been liable to sing flat.

          • That’s a good point. I was thinking about having to reach for those repeated high notes during and following “O herstes Wunder”. Honestly, in 2005, I think recital work would have been best, allowing her to focus on the mid and lower voice.

            Her singing was increasingly variable from the 90s onward. I’ve heard that she took a break in the late 90s and reworked her voice a bit, but I don’t know how much fruit that effort bore.

            Maybe if she had switched completely to mezzo roles in the early 90s, she would have had a few more consistent years. Who knows…

    • Luvtennis

      Have you heard the studio recording she made of Alceste? It was released on Orfeo. I think with Mr. Gedda???

      • I have not. What do you think of it? Chris Corwin doesn’t seem thrilled by it.

        • Luvtennis

          Perhaps he is referring to the cast and conducting? I haven’t listened to it in many years, but I recall her sounding wonderful. Her legato was always a sometime thing -- something about the way she produced the voice. Sometimes the voice got a bit stuck in her throat, if you know what I mean. But in full flight she was incredible.

  • grimoaldo2

    “the marvelous Sir Charles Mackerras.”

    Indeed, indeed, superlative at everything he conducted, which was an astonishing range of composers of all periods.
    Nice to see you back, CC!

  • I just finished listening to this. Thank you again, Chris Corwin and La Cieca. Norman is indeed wonderful in this. There’s one small passage in the second half where she struggles with a high-lying passage but she’s tremendous in the rest of it. This reminds me a bit of her Phedre in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. She had a real affinity for 18th century music and French music in particular. Now I’ll return to the Verrett/Bumbry joint concert which I had started before this came along. It’s been a great week on parterre for some of my favourite divas – all three of them Falcons!