The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Henry Pleasants; Hugo Wolf | Go to book overview

58. Alceste

October 11, 1885

There is nothing especially astonishing about our operagoing public's indifference toward the works of Gluck. It was, after all, a full seventy-five years before the artistic sensibility of our Court Opera management found the time ripe to serve up Alceste as a novelty for the multitude.1 And so there was a full house for this odd resurrection ceremony. To most of those present it must have seemed odd, indeed.

What was one to make of this severe, austere music, of this plot progressing in solemnly measured rhythm? Nothing but weeping and wailing from beginning to end. Unhappy Admetus! Unhappy Alceste! Unhappy people! Unhappy children! Miserable oracle! But patience. The second act begins more brightly. Admetus lives, the people are cheerful. Alceste, to be sure, looks far from happy, but there is no time to waste upon her woes, for already the ballerinas are hopping about, and forgotten are Admetus and Alceste, plot and music. Calamity is put aside, all pain is extinguished, all dangerous compassion suppressed, and connoisseurs and dilettantes, smirking triumphantly, set to the bridges of their noses that indispensable instrument of all operagoers -- and extol Gluck's splendid Alceste!

There can, indeed, hardly be anything more ludicrous than our delighted opera public at the first peformance of a new production of an opera by Gluck. How far such enthusiasm reaches can be determined at a second performance, or a third, or, if it comes to that, a fourth. Only curiosity and the self‐ satisfaction of being seen at a premiere drive the people into the theater. True admirers of Gluck's music can be counted on the fingers of one's hands. Were Gluck's operas given more frequently, one would be more circumspect in the choice of novelties. One would aspire to artistic rather than commercial success, an aspiration within the range of a theater so generously subsidized as ours. Much might be said, then, and said seriously, about the production of noble works of art such as Gluck's, or, indeed, all talk rendered superfluous. But that is still a pipe dream.

Frau Materna projected the title role beautifully, if not quite fully in the idiom of Gluck. More restraint, more repose, are to be recommended to one who undertakes this role. Unduly heavy accentuation is also to be avoided. None is indicated in the score. Herr Sommer (as the High Priest) sang as if nothing more were afoot than an examination by a jury of singing teachers.

-155-

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