Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins
The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011
It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.
Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.
It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.
Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.
The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.