Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Plácido Domingo as Oreste [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera]
27 Feb 2011

Iphigénie en Tauride, New York

Gluck’s operas are part of a continuum, a tradition of French vocal declamation (as opposed to the Italian school of flights of elegant, open-throated vocal fantasy) that can be traced to him from Lully and Rameau, and then from Gluck through certain works of Mozart and Gluck’s pupil, Salieri to the operas of Spontini, Berlioz and Wagner.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride

Iphigénie: Elizabeth Bishop; Oreste: Plácido Domingo; Pylade: Paul Groves; Thoas: Gordon Hawkins; Diane: Julie Boulianne; Priestesses: Lei Xu, Cecelia Hall. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers. Performance of February 16.

Above: Plácido Domingo as Oreste

Except as otherwise indicated, all photos by Ken Howard courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

 

It is not a greater or lesser tradition than the Italian style, but it achieves different dramatic effects, or the same effects by different means, and individual singers are often more proficient in one than in the other. Specialists in Gluck being rare (though he is, happily, going through one of his periodic revivals just now), one must seek great Gluck singers in other branches of the repertory. Those trained for Wagner, not too surprisingly, often fit well in the Gluckian glove. Thus, back in the 1950s, Flagstad and Farrell were both superb as Gluck’s Alceste and would probably have been exciting as his Iphigénie.

Elizabeth_Bishop_02.gifElizabeth Bishop [Photo by Sasha Vasiljev courtesy of Barrett Vantage Artists]

With this in mind, I was intrigued to learn that Susan Graham was indisposed on the night I attended Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met and would be replaced by Elizabeth Bishop. I had last heard Bishop as Venus in Tannhäuser (also a last-minute replacement) and have fond memories of that performance: a young singer of great authority and potential in dramatic roles. But Iphigénie is a less one-note conception than Venus; too, she is the epitome of restraint where Venus is just the opposite.

Gluck’s Iphigénie, taken from Euripides, is a dignified priestess, torn between her personal, humane, Greek sense of ethics and the demands of the barbaric society in which she finds herself trapped, demands that include performing human sacrifices. The screw turns its final gyre when two proposed victims are her long-lost brother, Oreste, and his friend Pylade. Tension is provided by the fact that, after fifteen years apart, the siblings do not recognize each other and somehow never ask each other’s name. Wouldn’t you tell a priestess your name before she cut your throat?

The situation is resolved in antique high style by the appearance of the deity, Diane, who rescues the Greeks and abolishes human sacrifice—but she takes her time to show up (at the end of Act IV), allowing us to comprehend the noble natures of our legendary characters as they face their predicament. In Gluck’s stately score dignity is the watchword, though at the Met, in Stephen Wadsworth’s excessively busy production, Iphigénie is inclined to hysterical fits and hallucinations. So, for that matter, is Oreste, but he has an excuse—the Furies drove him mad for his brief fit of matricide back in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

IPHIGENIE_Groves_and_Doming.gifPaul Groves as Pylade and Plácido Domingo as Oreste

Bishop sang the priestess-princess with the right stately propriety and a large, burnished mezzo, but with occasional lapses of evenness, of control, that suggested she had not fully gauged the demands of this long role. It was not a fully crafted performance, though a promising one; if Ms. Graham remains under the weather (Bishop has sung at least one other evening since the one I attended), another excursion or two should pull it all together. Plácido Domingo, too, had a cold (and had the Met say so) but, canny codger that he is, concealed his discomfort behind the craziness Oreste calls for. Not until Bishop had him on his back on the altar, knife poised above, did the familiar Domingo sound pour miraculously forth. Paul Groves, as Pylade, had much the best night of the three leading singers, with an ardent, gleaming sound and acting that made this two-dimensional sidekick role seem genuinely heroic. Mr. Groves has usually been regarded as a lightweight, Mozartean tenor, but his singing here implied that he could take on weightier assignments rewardingly: Florestan or Samson or (in Domingo’s footsteps) light Wagner. Gordon Hawkins sang Thoas unimpressively, Julie Boulianne was acceptable as Diane, and I must say a word about Lei Xu and Cecelia Hall, who made a genuine and joyous impression in the small roles of Iphigénie’s assisting priestesses. Gluck obscures no one; his score allows everyone to shine if she or he is able to. The Met chorus did a tidy a job and Patrick Summers brought out the many felicities of this gracious, unusual score that sums up so much of where drama and opera had led by 1779 and predicts so much of what was to come.

IPHIGENIE_Graham_and_Hawkin.gifSusan Graham as Iphigénie and Gordon Hawkins as Thoas

The Wadsworth production accompanies the “Janissary” percussion Gluck composed so that we’d know we were in a land of barbarians with inane and frantic dancing here and there in nooks and landings and crannies of the set to make us think wild orgies were going on next door. There are also pointless and tiresome intrusions of the ghosts of persons sung about who have no business being on stage, where they confuse the casual viewer and annoy the knowing one. All these things, and Iphigénie’s hysteria could be altered with a simple restaging. Less easy to comprehend and impossible to forgive is the positioning of the statue of the goddess in her temple: In all the long millennia of religious faith, this is surely the only occasion anyone has ever offered prayers, sacrifices and hymns to the backside of a deity. Couldn’t they turn her at least ninety degrees and have them offer sacrifice beside her?

All that aside, it’s a good show.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):