Whats Playing? - Metropolitan Opera's "Iphegénie enTauride"
Published 10:35 am, Sunday, March 6, 2011
When opera lovers think of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the first work that comes to mind is the familiar Orpheus e Euridice," but he wrote several others. 18th century opera-seria is enjoying a revival today, because there are singers available to perform it.
Gluck turned again to the Greek mythology for the extraordinary piece we heard last weekend in his sophisticated treatment of part of the Oresteia, the source of many operatic, dance and drama works. Two of which come quickly to mind are Martha Graham's epic ballet, "Clytemnestra," which actually tells the back story of this opera, and Richard Strauss' glorious but nerve-wracking "Elektra."
Iphegénie, the youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon has been miraculously saved by the goddess Diana from death by sacrifice at her father's hands. She is now a high priestess in the service of the king of Taurus. Her duties, sadly enough, involve sacrificing others who threaten the King Thoas. Her handmaidens are also unhappy Greek captives.
Two castaways arrive, having been taken prisoner. One is a warrior, Pylade and the other is none other than Orestes, Iphegénie's matricidal brother, still pursued by the persistent Furies in punishment for killing his mother, the aforementioned Clytemnestra. (Let's just say right here that this is easily the most dysfunctional family in all of mythology.)
King Thoas, who is no nice guy either, insists that the two be sacrificed. After much Sturm-und-Drang, set to incredibly glorious music with superb singing by all concerned, Iphegénie cannot bring herself to kill either of them. Pylade is sent away. Oreste remains behind, supposedly to be sacrificed, but again, she just can't do it. The king is furious.
Pylade arrives with a cadre of Greek warriors, (don't ask where he found them) and a battle breaks loose. Greek god and goddesses, however, always seem to arrive just at the right moment, and Diana herself descends and straightens everybody out.
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Brother and sister are reunited, and every one is embracing, rejoicing, singing and dancing as the curtain comes down.
The opera was directed by the excellent Stephen Wadsworth, who gave us a real spell-binder. The conductor was Patrick Summers. There was not a dull or draggy moment all afternoon. The music enhanced the drama, and took great care of the singers.
They had a lot of work to do. Both major leads, mezzo-soprano soprano Susan Graham and the wonderful Placido Domingo both supposedly were dealing with colds, (that bane of singers' existence,) but you would never have known it. Graham's full, velvety singing, whether declamatory or melodic was stunningly beautiful, and Domingo's ability to convey emotion without sacrificing his dark-toned lyricism is truly amazing, since he has just celebrated his 70th birthday. They grabbed you and carried you right into the drama.
A surprise for me was tenor Paul Groves, who I had never heard before, as Pylade, Orestes' loyal friend. He has a big gorgeous voice, smooth from top to bottom and is an affecting actor as well, entirely equal to this demanding of his role, which was as difficult and taxing as those of his two colleagues.
I loved the brief but lovely singing of the goddess Diana, Julie Boulianne. Rich bass-baritone Gordon Hawkins was a formidable Thoas. All the supporting roles were excellent, and the chorus work, the work of Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo, was outstanding.
There was wild, ecstatic dancing, created by choreographer Daniel Pelzig, who used a stylistic primitive vocabulary of movement.
This was an operatic adventure of the highest, most satisfying kind! It is to be hoped that it will stay in the Met's repertory for a while.