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Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862
22 May 2011

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Washington National Opera

The Washington National Opera has concluded its 2010-11 season with Gluck’s 1779 masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride, arguably the great Viennese composer’s greatest achievement and his swan song (if one does not count that unfortunate flop of 1780, Echo et Narcisse — and luckily, one hardly ever does).

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride

Click here for cast and production information

Click here for a photo gallery

Above: Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862


The production is also the swan song for Placido Domingo, WNO’s departing artistic director and the star of Iphigénie’s long-awaited and much-acclaimed 2007 revival at the Met. Although the DC audiences who missed that event (last reprised in February this year) were in for a treat in experiencing Domingo’s masterly Orestes, the fabulous Stephen Wadsworth production in which he appeared did not — alas! — accompany him from New York. Instead, we saw a creation of Spanish director Emilio Sagi, imported from Ópera de Oviedo, a small, picturesque and artistically adventurous town in the Northern Spanish province of Asturias. Yet, if there was ever a case made for choosing a locally grown creative product over an import, this was it. The WNO Iphigénie was a classic example of an aural triumph cloaked in a visual disaster: from the opening chorus on, I wished that the vengeful gods of Olympus would strike me blind and let me enjoy a wonderful opera in a truly superior performance while sparing me the ugliness on stage.

If one had to choose, the industrial-looking sets by Luis Antonio Suarez were the least objectionable element of the Oviedo production. The metal-and-concrete box that, according to Suarez, doubled as the heroine’s temple and her prison was a reasonable contemporary interpretation of the plot. Indeed, watching the singers in floor-length costumes climbing up and down flimsy metal ladders built into the concrete while trying to produce an acceptable sound was a heart-stopping experience, designed no doubt to increase dramatic tension. The back of the set, a cross between a gigantic wrought-iron gate and a mosaic of mirrored glass, was actually attractive, and the minimalistic set of Act 3, with its metal floor-length torch, modernist angular white armchair, and stone back wall that opened out into the starry night was an effective conceit. But the costumes by Oviedo’s own Pepa Ojanguren were to die for — and not in a good way. The highlights included loosely hanging black tunics, pants, and skirts; cloaks of cheap plastic for the warriors and one-piece bathing suits for the dancers; and the horribly lurid black lycra bodices that made the choristers look like they were wearing bargain trash bags (dare one make a bad pun on “Eurotrash” at this point?). I am still puzzled over the vision of lead dancer and choreographer Diniz Sanchez bouncing around the stage on high-tech curved metal stilts — that is, when he was not clinging for dear life to Iphigenia’s shoulders, lest he lose his balance and tumble into the orchestra pit. I am not certain, however, if that particular detail should be credited to the choreographer himself or to the stage director: both seemed determined to design all stage movements either for Olympic athletes or ballet dancers, without the slightest concern for the performers who would actually have to execute their ideas. For instance, the living chain of priestesses, their bare arms on each other’s shoulders, might prove attractive, even affecting in Giselle, but instead looked merely embarrassing on the ladies of the WNO choir, who do not all wear size two, and who deserve much praise for delivering beautiful renditions of Iphigénie’s stunning choruses, despite their predicament.

The same can be said for American soprano Patricia Racette, who brought both vocal prowess (with only an occasional muddiness on highs) and powerful drama to her portrayal of Iphigenia. That is, when her considerable acting talent was not stymied by the stage director. Evidently torn between a realistic and a symbolic interpretation of her character, Sagi produced neither, instead punctuating Racette’s part with random swoons and melodramatic clutching of the stomach. This approach looked particularly bizarre in the opening scene, in which the ingenious effect of projecting images of swirling storm clouds onto the gauze front curtain (lighting designer Eduardo Bravo) was entirely ruined by awkward acting behind the gauze. The audience was left to wonder whether Iphigenia and her priestesses were being battered by the waves or suffering from an acute case of seasickness.

The music-drama contradictions in Pilade’s character, however, should likely be attributed not to the director but to Shawn Mathey, American tenor cast in the role. It is perfectly understandable why Mathey would be tempted to make Pilade a Heldentenor: in the story, Pilades is indeed a hero, who in the opera’s finale rescues his friend Orestes and Iphigenia from the clutches of the tyrant Thoas (the fabulously menacing Simone Alberghini — the only singer who really owned that black lycra). Unfortunately (and rarely for this superb opera), the score does not support the libretto here. The part is written for a haute-contre — a very high, light, almost feminine tenor timbre, more appropriate for an over-excited adolescent (or a wimpy Don Ottavio — Mathey’s most recent part on the WNO stage) than a heroic young warrior. It is not the bravura of his Act 3 “to-the-rescue” aria, but the languid, mildly erotic grace of the Act 2 romance that define Gluck’s Pilade — and appropriately, it was the romance and not the aria in which Mathey shined.

Overall, despite the youth of many soloists (four of them Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists), the vocal quality of the performance was surprisingly and consistently excellent from the beginning of Act 1. Yet, the first note out of Placido Domingo’s mouth in the Act 1 finale puts us on notice: the king of the Greeks has arrived. Domingo’s magnificent Orestes has been much discussed since he took up the baritone part in the 2007 Met production. The dramatic intensity he brings to the role makes one forget his age, his tenor past, even his star power: we see only the character, and forget to applaud the performer (which, of course, was the goal of Gluck’s opera reform that gave birth to Iphigénie). It is a good thing too, for there are few moments in the score that allow for an applause break, and fewer still in the part of Orestes: with the exception of his Act 2 monolog, that character’s best moments are ensemble scenes (such as his duets with Pilades, and the Act 3 trio with Pilades and Iphigenia) and occasional throw-away lines of declamation, such as the single phrase allowed him in Act 1, which he rendered with the perfectly pitched, beautifully delivered anguish. The role of Orestes is well suited to the Domingo of today: it offers the lower vocal range he now prefers; and the patented absence of fast coloratura allows the singer to showcase an impeccably contoured and virtually unadorned bel canto line molded flawlessly to the declamation, as Gluck’s music submits to the demands of the drama.

The only issues that arose throughout the performance were not of Domingo’s own making. An occasional lapse in projection in Act 3 was a gift of the director who positioned Orestes at the very back of the stage with his back to the audience. As for the moments during which the singer seemed to have trouble catching up with the orchestra, this concern was shared by all the soloists and the chorus and must be attributed to some unaccountably brisk tempos selected by conductor William Lacey — a particularly dicey proposition, considering that the chorus rarely had the luxury of facing the baton, while Domingo and Mathey spent the opening scene of Act 2 blind-folded. On the other hand, the British conductor elicited an unexpectedly strong, clean performance from the WNO orchestra, typically the company’s weakest link. Granted, this feat might have been made possible by the absence of several habitual offenders from the wind and brass sections in Gluck’s 18th-century score.

On the whole, despite its ups and downs, the WNO presentation of Iphigénie en Tauride has been a testament to the enduring power of Gluck’s chef-d’oeuvre, reminding us of the heights to which its drama can be lifted by a great interpreter, and thankfully, of the score’s ability to overcome the deficiencies of a mediocre one. Not that this opera needs much interpreting: unlike much of the pre-Mozart repertoire, it does not feel out of place on a modern stage. Instead, it offers high-minded tragedy, revealed through flexible declamation and ensemble dialog, rather than high-powered solo numbers — an approach embraced in many contemporary operas. But unlike their music, viewed sometimes as too dissonant and forbidding, Gluck’s score is transcendently beautiful, selling the concept of operatic ensemble drama to an audience raised on the Romantic era’s coloratura tours-de-force. I hope we shall see this work often. I also hope that when next Iphigenia of Tauris arrives in Washington DC, she is not only a pleasure to hear, but also a pleasure to watch.

Olga Haldey

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