Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’ — It’s Greek to Me: Great Performances at the Met

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The Reformer Reformed

Susan Graham & Placido Domingo in Iphigénie en Tauride (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Susan Graham & Placido Domingo in Iphigénie en Tauride
(Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

He was known in music history as a reformer. But what was it that composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-87) reformed? For starters, the German-born musician brought order to the chaotic world of Baroque opera. Acknowledged as belonging to the Classical period (roughly the years between 1730 to about 1830), Gluck’s reforms encompassed a whole range of improvements over the stylized conventions that had hitherto prevailed with the advent of Handel and others of his ilk.

These reforms, which among other things extended to a greater prominence of orchestration, the importance of musical recitative (or récit in French) to further the dramatic action, and a more fluid transition from recitative to the aria proper, as well as an increased emphasis on the text, brought Gluck wider fame in Paris, where many of his most successful works (i.e, Orphée et Eurydice, Alceste, Armide) had their world premieres.

One of these works, the four-act Iphigénie en Tauride, based on Euripides’ play, is typical of Gluck’s revolutionary style. At just under two hours, it’s a well-concentrated, fully-conceived condensation of the Greek tragedy of Princess Iphigenia, her brother Orestes (Oreste in the opera), and the professed bond that exists between them and the Greek prisoner Pylades (or Pylade). The bulk of the action takes place in a Scythian jail cell, where both Pylade and Oreste are held captive, with the major thrust being the motivations of both Iphigénie and Oreste, whose identities are suspected but unknown to one another.

The Met Opera’s February 26, 2011 revival — originally heard on a Saturday and re-broadcast as part of the Great Performances at the Met series — epitomized this very concentration of action. In director Stephen Wadsworth’s 2007 production, the emphasis was clearly on characterization. And for that, Wadsworth had a handpicked cast of first-rate singing actors at his disposal: mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Iphigénie, tenor (now baritone) Plácido Domingo as Oreste, tenor Paul Groves as Pylade, and Lei Xu, Cecelia Hall, Gordon Hawkins, and David Won in other roles, with Julie Boulianne as the goddess Diana, the deus ex machina wielder of the plot.

A “Placid Sunday” Indeed

Previously known in this country, and at the Met, in a German-language version created by composer Richard Strauss, the opera had not been given at the house since its 1916-17 debut. Wadsworth’s use of the original French, however, was a masterstroke, as was his deployment of the services of Mr. Domingo.

As readers of my blog are aware, I’ve been a most outspoken critic of the former tenor’s de facto return to the baritone repertoire. To summarize, my argument with Domingo’s unworthy venture is that he simply does not sound like a normal baritone should, nor at this stage in his lengthy career does he maintain the heft and timbre called for in most Verdi or any other composer’s works.

I was deeply dismayed, then, to learn that next season Plácido will once more grace the Met stage in a revival of Verdi’s Ernani — not in the titular tenor part, mind you, but in the high-lying baritone role of Don Carlo. Normally, that would not be an issue in itself; however, at 73 (and, at the time of the Ernani revival, he’ll be 74), Domingo will be much too old to impersonate a young and virile potentate such as Don Carlo was reputed to have been.

Nevertheless, if his voice continues to hold out, the tenor-cum-baritone could very well pull off the coup of a lifetime. I say this based on his miraculous makeover as Oreste in the Gluck opera. As the perpetrator of his mother’s death (his mother, you may recall from Greek literature, was the villainous Clytemnestra, herself responsible for her husband Agamemnon’s murder), Oreste has a perpetual dark cloud hanging over his head. With his more aged mien, drawn and wan expression, bearded and long-haired form, in addition to visually expressive arm and hand gestures, Domingo became the tragic hero personified.

It’s hard to tell whether Wadsworth had a hand, so to speak, in Domingo’s transformation from his usual stand-and-deliver style to this wholehearted assumption of the doom-laden Oreste. By some miracle of conservation (or deus ex machina intervention perhaps?), the star’s voice held firm throughout the proceedings. This is not a particularly taxing role vocally, but the acting component is what makes Oreste the main attraction for star baritones of the magnitude of a Simon Keenlyside, for example.

In that department, I was most pleasantly surprised, not only by Mr. Domingo’s cheek in tackling such a part as Oreste, but in his complete identification with the character’s dilemma. There’s hope yet that Señor Plácido has indeed made the right career move.

Susan Graham & Furies
Susan Graham & Furies

As for the other participants, there is no artist better at conveying the ever-changing facets of a character than Susan Graham. Her voice, body language and tone, her physical embodiment and total involvement in the princess Iphigénie’s plight spoke volumes before she sang a note of the score. This is as unconventional a role as any in the standard classical repertory, one that looks forward to Strauss’ own psychologically probing reinterpretation of Mycenaean events in his one-act Elektra, to be featured a few seasons from now in Patrice Chéreau’s posthumous production.

Graham is no stranger to classical heroines of this type, as her Dido in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Marguerite in the same composer’s The Damnation of Faust, have proven time and again. Her stature as this country’s most charismatic spokesperson for opera in general, and for the Metropolitan Opera in particular, has earned her acclaim from almost every corner.

Here, Ms. Graham showed exemplary command not only of the French singing style but of Gluck’s way with language and music, an integration of these two art forms that culminated in the rise of such diverse artists as Luigi Cherubini, Gaspare Spontini, the aforementioned Berlioz, and, of course, the imperturbable Richard Wagner.

Paul Groves (left) with Domingo (Ken Howard)
Paul Groves (left) with Domingo (Photo: Ken Howard)

Along with Graham, Paul Groves’ model French diction and vocal ease above the staff won hearty applause at the curtain for his finely wrought portrayal of Pylade. His short exit aria before his departure from prison, and especially his well-blended duets with Domingo, were all perfectly executed with emotional commitment and tonal luster to spare. Floating in at the last (in true “god from a machine” manner), soprano Julie Boulianne delivered the goddess Diana’s lines with gravity and gusto.

The Met’s corps de ballet and the reduced Met Chorus, under the direction of choreographer Daniel Pelzig and chorus master Donald Palumbo, respectively, took well-deserved bows for their fine work.

Holding it all together was conductor Patrick Summers, who is best known as Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera. Maestro Summers, who first appeared at the Met in 1998, has been a frequent guest conductor for several seasons. His varied repertoire covers the full gamut of operas: from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

He showed his firm grasp of the Classical idiom by allowing the Met Orchestra to outshine itself in this neglected masterpiece. May Summers continue along this eclectic path for many “seasons” to come!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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