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Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862)
30 Dec 2007

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met

Regarded, until the modern vogue for earlier masters, as the senior surviving grand master of opera, Gluck never quite becomes fashionable and never quite vanishes.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie: Susan Graham; Oreste: Placido Domingo; Pylades: Paul Groves; Thoas: William Shimell; Diane: Michele Losier.
Conducted by Louis Langrée. Production by Stephen Wadsworth.
Metropolitan Opera, December 19.


Today, when large audiences for older music and older styles of singing have come into being, Gluck’s simplicity and directness of dramatic melody have a chance at genuine popularity. Orfeo is back — indeed, it never went away, or not since Pauline Viardot made it chic to watch a lady wield a toga way back in 1859, and these days it is perfectly respectable for men to sing it as well. I have also seen stagings of Alceste, Armide, Paride ed Elena, Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride — the last three times, Gluck’s penultimate work for the stage and generally acknowledged masterpiece. Mozart attended every rehearsal for the Vienna premier in 1779, and one can easily detect its influence in his Idomeneo, composed the following year. Gluck’s influence on the declamatory style of Berlioz and, indeed, Wagner, is instructive: when composers want something “classic” in the style of the Greeks, Gluck, who was anything but Greek, seems the obvious model. He all but channels Euripides — whose plays are the basis for Alceste and both Iphigénies.

Hedging its bets, the Met insured Iphigénie’s success at the box office by presenting Placido Domingo in the usually baritone role of Oreste (and we’d so much rather have him sing Gluck, in any register, than crap like Sly or Cyrano). Having thus guaranteed that all performances would sell out, the Met went on to secure Stephen Wadsworth’s production, whose kinks had been worked out at the Seattle Opera, and the services of Susan Graham in the title role, after hearing her sing it in Chicago and other venues. The mixture worked very well; enthusiasm for all elements was all the Met could have desired, and lovers of Gluck could feel their fidelity justified: the merchandise is as good as its repute.

Musically, it could be argued that the production’s tendency to link number to number, scene to scene, negating the breaks where applause could be signaled, makes it tougher for audiences to grasp: it’s all or nothing. But opera audiences of today are not the ones Gluck had to face — they are now accustomed to long stretches of uninterrupted music-drama. Therefore Wadsworth filled — overfilled, I’d say — “empty” stretches of music, and even moments with no music to cover them, with loud noises so the audience would not applaud a sublime aria, or else with dumb shows, acting and mime, and variously neurotic behavior on the part of his characters. Did Gluck work so hard to take the clutter and irrelevancy out of opera only to have Wadsworth put it back? Here — yes. Oreste is supposed to be crazed, driven mad by the Furies summoned by his mother’s ghost (in Aeschylus’s Eumenides — you remember) to avenge her murder; Gluck famously contrasts his measured vocal line against mad, slashing figures in the string section, a moment subtly underlined by the evening’s expert maestro, Louis Langrée.

But Iphigénie, in my experience, has usually been rather a cold fish — the stern priestess repressing her nightmarish past, such that the revelation of her identity is a shock. In the Wadsworth staging, Graham is anything but cold — she is loonier here than her brother, hurling herself about the stage, clawing the walls. The sense that she and the other priestesses are captives, terrorized into doing the barbarians’ bloody will (which includes human sacrifice) is made superbly real by the two steep rooms into which the set is divided and the way the priestesses huddle in its corners, but I missed the regal distance of Iphigénie that alone seems to explain why she and Oreste take such a long time to come to reveal their names and discover they are brother and sister before the accursed house of Atreus suffers yet another intrafamilial homicide. Graham’s singing, too, though prettily expressive of her throes, lacked that haughty element, that grandeur that is my personal preference for Gluck-lich royalty. She is sweet where Iphigénie should be awesome. As for her desperate attitudes, clutching of walls and self, at times when she has sung of her reconciliation with her fate — this does not expand her character; it denies the power of music, and of Gluck. Gluck, I put it to you, should have the last word here — not Wadsworth or even Graham.

The relationship between Oreste and Pylade, which often has a homoerotic frisson in modern stagings of the opera (that was true in Euripides’ day, too), had nothing of the kind with Domingo in exceptional voice, a dignified, inward, tragic Oreste, and Paul Groves a thrilling Pylade. That element of excess that sometimes comes through their frenetic efforts to die in each other’s stead was not part of the drama on this occasion: they were, rather, back to back against the forces of darkness. William Shimell, as the barbaric King Thoas, sounded gruffer than the opera demands — it was never pleasant to hear him sing.

Iphigénie gave more pleasure than any other new production thus far in the crowded Met season — Wadsworth was engaging with the opera, not forcing it into another mold. Besides the bare, rude grandeur of the temple’s back room set, with its gleams of gold and mysterious lighting, I liked the way several of the opera’s celebratory or orgiastic dances (French opera has always liked more ballet than non-French opera audiences have cared for) took place all-but-off-stage, so that one glimpsed a few ecstatic movements without being distracted from starker doings stage center.

I did object, however, here as in many other productions, to the current style of giving the audience visual cues every step of the way, a style that might be called MTV opera direction: the dumb show at the beginning (for those who have forgotten the story of Iphigenia’s past — which is not likely, and in any case is described later on), the spectacular but undignified descent of the goddess from the ceiling on wires, the appearance of Clytemnestra within the pillar between Oreste and Iphigénie, blessing the two of them — a lovely stage effect but not, I suggest, what the real, vengeful Clytemnestra would have been doing and therefore intrusive.

Perhaps most absurd, why is the statue of the goddess facing away from the stage and the altar? I know they’re barbarians in Tauris (the modern Crimea), but what sort of manna are they invoking from this cult statue? Is it a pun on the “moon” in Diana’s nature? It would be nice to have Mr. Wadsworth explain this particular silliness in the midst of an exciting staging of a masterpiece too seldom heard or seen.

John Yohalem

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