Opera : Robert Wilson Stages an Abstract Vision of ‘Alceste’ in Chicago


Remember Robert Wilson? Remember his “CIVIL warS,” the 12-hour, $7-million avant-garde quasi-opera that was supposed to be the highlight of the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles back in 1984?

Ultimately the victim of a financial fiasco, Wilson’s magnum opus never made it to Shrine Auditorium. In fact, it has never been performed in toto anywhere.

Undaunted, Wilson has rebounded with an imposing series of productions that have become the rage--literally and figuratively--of Italy, Germany and France. It is only in his own conservative country that the designing director from Waco, Tex., remains something of a prophet without honor.

Eventually that could change, thanks in part to Ardis Krainik, the enterprising impresaria of the Chicago Lyric Opera. Friday night, when she opened the local opera season, she could have soothed the 3,500 savage breasts in attendance with something familiar and easy--something like the sleepy “La Boheme” that will inaugurate the Met season next Monday.


But Krainik likes to think modern, on occasion. She likes to think dangerous. She also likes to think glamorous.

In recent years, she had invited Peter Sellars to stage a revolutionary “Tannhauser” and Yuri Lyubimov to direct a provocative “Lulu.” Under the circumstances, no one could have been shocked to learn that she had brought Wilson home to update the noble formulas, anno 1776, of Gluck’s “Alceste.”

Wilson’s interpretation of the opera had been controversial when it was introduced in Stuttgart four years ago, with Dunja Vejzovic in the title role. It will, no doubt, remain controversial here, with Jessye Norman portraying the sacrificial heroine.

Obviously, this is not an “Alceste” for historical purists. Wilson does not go for baroque.


He thinks in terms of monumental abstraction. He plays with scrims on a bare stage, ornamented with modernist symbols. Symmetrical shafts of color define the playing areas. An ever-changing cube rotates mysteriously on wires in the sky.

Outfitted in stark costumes by Joachim Herzog that defy period identification, the cast either freezes in stylized agony or glides through the open space in mechanical slow-motion. The chorus is banished to the pit, while an ensemble of dancers--trained by Suzushi Hanayagi--tries to convey expressive urgency in body language that fuses Grahamesque contortion with Kabuki ritual with basic semaphore.

The statuesque protagonist, draped magnificently and generously in crimson, enjoys the services of a dramatic alter ego--a dancer in white who mimes the diva’s inner emotions. At what used to be the happy end, Wilson introduces the shock of ambiguity, leaving Alceste alone and possibly forsaken on her own doorstep. She enjoys no blissful reunion with her husband, Admete, who--as played by Chris Merritt--resembles a clumsy, giant automaton.

Mercifully, the directing auteur lowers the curtain before there can be any celebration. The cliche of the final festive dances is cut.

Wilson invokes simple, strikingly beautiful, remarkably fluid images. He creates exquisitely outlined, impeccably balanced compositions. In collaboration with Jennifer Tipton, he paints with light.

He isn’t invariably responsive, however, to the dynamic pulse of the score, or even to the text. His choreographic mannerisms, when executed by ordinary singers rather than inspired actors, can tend toward the risible. In his mythological arena, a thin line separates character and caricature.

Still, one must applaud the boldness of his imagination, not to mention the stubborn clarity of his vision. Wilson stimulates the viewer, even when he blithely contradicts the source.

The dressy Chicago audience applauded politely. If one noted any grumbling, it involved the absence of the now de rigueur supertitles.


Wilson refused to allow his carefully gauged stage pictures to be adorned with captions. He did compromise on the projection of a few expository sentences at the beginning of each scene, but even these malfunctioned in Act II.

The musical elements proved less compelling than the theatrical impulses. Gary Bertini conducted with busy competence, without hinting at a unifying perspective of the score or demonstrating much concern for the inherent Gallic style.

The title role has flattered such diverse divas as Germaine Lubin, Marjorie Lawrence, Kirsten Flagstad, Maria Callas, Eileen Farrell, Heather Harper and Janet Baker. Norman moved through the physical and vocal platitudes with self-conscious grandeur and considerable dignity. Although she sang the introspective passages with exquisite, sensuous point, especially at mid-range, she was severely taxed by the heroic outbursts.

Merritt partnered her conscientiously as a bigger-than-life Admete, and sang with power that never flagged at high altitudes. Suavity, alas, is not his forte.

The supporting cast included John Brandstetter as the High Priest, Mark S. Doss as Hercule, Henry Runey as Thanatos and Gary Lehman as Apollon. All turned out to be competent. None mustered sufficient magnetism to compete successfully with Wilson’s scenery.