26 February 2011: Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride

Opera composed by Cristoph Willibald Gluck. Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. Conductor, Patrick Summers. Production, Stephen Wadsworth. Iphigénie, Susan Graham; Oreste, Placido Domingo; Pylade, Paul Groves; Thoas, Gordon Hawkins

There is not a lot of action in this opera, based on a play by Euripides which represents the alternative story about Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and sister of Orestes, who in this version is rescued from death and sent into exile in Taurus, where she serves the enemy Scythians as the high priestess of Diana. She is believed to be dead. And so her brother Orestes, in the company of his friend and devoted follower Pylades, who are blown by unpropitious yet ultimately favorable winds to Scythia, likewise believes that his sister Iphigenia has perished. The basic plot mechanism, then, is one of ultimate recognition, deferred for as long as dramatic and musical ingenuity can prevail. It is one of those Euripidean plays that has a sad and somber tone throughout but at the last is redeemed in a happy ending. As usual, we are not informed in the Met’s handout who the librettist was; recourse to my handy New Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book tells me it was Francois Guillard. In any case, Euripides has been adapted to the ethos and style of French classicism, one principle of which is that nothing much happens on stage but a great deal happens off.

In this case French classicism comes to serve the ultimate purpose of highly emotional music: the less that happens on stage, the more the composer is free to explore and exploit the emotional ramifications of stasis. He does this in a perfectly brilliant manner, by imposing a fraught hopelessness on both principals, along with a nobly selfless friendship on Oreste and Pylades that reminds one of a similar friendship in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. For nearly three hours we are treated to the melancholy spectacle of two characters, Oreste and Iphigénie, neither of whom believes that his or her sibling is alive, sings of his or her frustration and despair in a series of arias, duets, and trios (the third character is of course Pylades) that are a joy and a wonder to hear. This is peerless music, most especially the aria sung by Susan Graham as Iphigénie at the end of Act I. One recognizes this aria as a familiar concert and audition piece. As Graham said in an interview between acts, this role is a wonderful one for a mezzo soprano, who is usually singing someone’s brother (she really did say that — a reference, I think, to the frequent presence of “trouser roles” in comic opera) or someone’s sister, but almost never the title character. And so the opportunity for a singer with this range to sing Gluck’s music is a match made in heaven.

The other opportunity, equally welcome, is not nearly so rare. I refer to the presence of Placido Domingo in the role of Oreste, performing the character of a young man whose life is a torment and thus an opportunity for highly emotional musical representation. It is not so rare because, thankfully, Domingo at the age of sixty-plus years is still going strong. He sings, he acts convincingly and persuasively, he conducts when he is not singing, and meanwhile he manages to run an opera company! An astonishing talent constantly on display, much to our benefit.

One suspects that a concert performance of this opera would tend to be rather tedious, or even a staged “reading.” All I can say is that this is a Metropolitan Opera production in which, like other Met productions, no expense is spared. A certain amount of spectacle is called for, although the tendency toward classicism is perceivable also in the setting and costumes. Oreste and Pylades are clothed in very well tailored rags; the female chorus are draped in simple brown, and wearing a kind of cloche hat, also in brown; and even Iphigénie herself is dressed in a long dark dress appropriate for the high priestess of a goddess. The one bit of color I can remember is the rather gaudy blue and gold-trimmed costume of the King of Mycenae, Thoas, inhabited by a very large, burly Gordon Hawkins, a formidable bass and an equally formidable presence. That costume seems almost vulgar and overdone, but then the role of the King is that of a simple-minded bully who noisily calls for the death of Oreste but who is summarily thrust offstage when the final clarification occurs.

The composer pays a certain amount of attention, but not much more than lip service, to the fearsome but quite arbitrary mores and life-denying rules and regulations requiring fealty at any price, regardless of consequence, that distinguish the capricious gods and goddesses who made life a hell for ancient Greeks. That part of it is just the accoutrements of story. What he is really interested in is the opportunity that this old story presents for an up-to-date reinvention for sophisticated, demanding opera-goers in which almost nothing happens, offering a framework for stellar operatic composition, not lush but somehow full. (The rule seems to be, not “The most notes in the best order” but, rather, “Just the right number of notes, no more, no less, in a perfect order that is simultaneously new and thoroughly recognizable.”) One has the impression that Gluck, along with other neoclassical composers like Handel, did not fare very well in the romantic period, where it was a case of the more notes, the merrier, which lasted almost until the dawn of the twentieth century (and still populates opera house stages to this day). The later twentieth century made up for classicism’s neglect in the renewed attention and sumptuous stagings accorded to these composers by adventurous opera companies, as well as by the attention given to them by world-class singers like Domingo and Graham. We are much in the debt of all of them.

A further note on the music and the opera itself. This opera appeared in 1779, just ten years before the revolution. Knowing this fact can suggest that there is a certain kind of unwitting prediction in the story of long-lost siblings being blown hither and yon by the winds of adversity — a prediction of death and disaster that is short-circuited at the last minute only through the beneficent kindness of the original Greek playwright. This will not happen again, ten years later. But this is still the eighteenth century, and the great big orchestras able to play the grand works of Beethoven, Bruckner, and their ilk had not yet been assembled. And so it seems rather anomalous that the music of the eighteenth-century composer Gluck should be performed by one hundred-plus musicians brought together in the vast orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera.

At various times during this performance I had the distinct yearning for a much smaller orchestra — not necessarily one instrument per part, but a chamber orchestra of perhaps thirty or thirty-five musicians. Especially when it came to the recitative, the sheer volume of music seemed overblown, excessive, out of proportion. It would seem that the sheer magnitude of the operation, on the stage and in the pit, makes it impossible to scale things back. Given the inordinate priciness of tickets, perhaps the audience would complain if the entire stage were not used to its fullest capacity; and likewise the orchestra pit. But the result is that we are given superb, full-scale productions where in some few cases what we want is the same kind of brilliant classical restraint and balance that is represented in the music itself. Surely it should not be the case that neoclassical composers should be banned from the stages of the modern behemoth that is the twentieth-century opera house and banished to smaller houses where scenic possibilities are more modest and the orchestra pits are not pits at all but platforms set to the side of a shallow stage where they can be seen as well as heard. I would like to hear this opera performed under these circumstances, even though I am on balance happy that Wagner came along and devised a theater in which the orchestra was squirreled away completely out of sight. Finally, I have to admit that I would not like to have done without this sumptuous Metropolitan Opera production, just the way it was.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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