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Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

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A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

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Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

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Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

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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

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