Thursday, 7 May 2015

Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride (Geneva, 2015 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2015

Hartmut Haenchen, Lukas Hemleb, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Bruno Taddia, Steve Davislim, Alexey Tikhomirov, Julienne Walker, Michel de Souza, Mi-Young Kim, Marianne Dellacasagrande, Cristiana Presutti, Wolfgang Barta

ARTE Concert - 4 February 2015

Gluck's musical reforms for opera are still recognised as important to the art form today, as to a certain extent is the primacy of the drama in his subjects. Composed in 1779, Iphigénie en Tauride is rightly regarded as the best example of the application of Gluck's approach to opera as drama. It's not so much that it's about putting plot and action at the centre of the work or applying a fluid through-compositional approach that integrated recitative and reduced the ornamentation of arias. The real innovation that can be seen in Iphigénie en Tauride, above and beyond these other significant reforms, is the psychological depth that the work contains.

So although Iphigénie en Tauride innovatively opens without an overture, plunging us straight into musical evocation of a storm, and even though it is Greek mythology, there's a human element underlying it that might not have been so evident in previous operatic explorations of these classical subjects. That's not a character that is lacking in the works of Handel or in other notable Baroque opera seria composers of course, but in moving away from the individual expressions of emotional turmoil in the ornamented da capo arias, Gluck does find a greater dramatic wholeness that is less academically tied to structure, less interchangeable in generic sentiments, and more willing to explore real personalities and interaction between people.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, the central relationships that draw out the themes of the drama are between Iphigenia and Orestes, and between Orestes and Pylades. The significance of this is most evident in the initial encounter between Iphigenia and Orestes, neither aware of who the other is, each believing the other dead. Without quite taking the musical language as far as Richard Strauss would take it some 150 years later in Elektra, this scene nevertheless explores just as incisively and vividly that same background, the sense of loss, horror and devastation that has visited the house of Agamemnon. Similarly, Orestes' scenes with Pylades explore the theme of friendship which might not be traditionally a strong emotional theme, but here Gluck makes it so and also - since one of them will die for it - makes it tense and dramatic at the same time.

And thereby, makes it human and not just some elaborate ancient tale of violence and revenge out of mythology involving long wars and the will of the gods. Some of the elements of Lukas Hemleb's production for the Grand Théâtre de Genève perhaps emphasise this division (mythology/human drama) and the links between them by using life-size puppet doubles for the characters. Claus Guth used a similar technique in his 2001 Zurich production of Iphigénie en Tauride as a device to psychoanalytically explore those divisions in the personalities of the characters, but Hemleb's intentions appear to be different, extending it to the nature of the drama within the opera itself. In as far as this is relevant to Gluck's treatment, it does undoubtedly emphasise the composer's particular way of exploring the conflict between actions and feelings beyond the traditional opera seria format.

Visually, the production has a strong presentation in Alexander Polzin's set designs that give a distinctive look and feel to each of the three acts without straying too far from its Greek theatre origins. A semi-circle stone amphitheatre in Act I, with most of the chorus all carrying dummies with identical masks, gives that impression of a Greek drama being played out as well as it being a temple, a place where the High Priestess Iphigenia and her followers sacrifice any foreign visitor who unwittingly arrives on the shores of Tauris. Act II closes in on the human drama of the friendship between Orestes and Pylades, by taking place mainly within a small confined space at the back of the temple/amphitheatre set. Act III is mostly empty stage and darkness, but a wider perspective shows the temple hanging above, with stalactites hanging dramatically over the drama that is impressively reaching its conclusion.

The puppets and doubles can be a little over-elaborate and not strictly necessary as an assist to Gluck's already highly evocative musical score. In Act II they can even almost work against the simplicity of the scene, when you not only have Orestes and Pylades in a cramped cell, but two life-sized puppets of them and two handlers as well. Essentially however, the purity of the Greek drama with its morally instructive dimension and the place of humanity within it are well served by the set designs. The singing, fortunately, also plays towards this purity and wholeness of drama and expression, without over-elaboration or unnecessary ornamentation. These are mythical characters and this is Greek drama on a grand scale, but the singing here really gives these larger than life figures a relatable human quality.

In this respect Anna Caterina Antonacci is outstanding as Iphigenia. Her voice holds firm, her characterisation is strong, the sense of trauma she has endured is credible, as is the dilemma she must face. That key scene meeting between Iphigenia and Orestes is played superbly and sung for all the import that is within it. Her brother Orestes here is sung by Bruno Taddia, and sung well, but it's more than a little overacted by comparison. On the other hand, how else are you expected to inhabit someone who is so consumed with guilt over the killing of his own mother Clytemnestra, and still in shock from her murder of her husband and his father Agamemnon? The singing is strong too in the other roles, with Steve Davislim's Pylades establishing a strong connection Orestes. Hartmut Haenchen's conducting of the musical performance was fine, but didn't bring out the vivid colours that are there in Gluck's score.

Links: ARTE ConcertGrand Théâtre de Genève