IphigÈnie en Tauride at the Met

Today, when large audiences for older music and older
styles of singing have come into being, Gluckís simplicity and directness
of dramatic melody have a chance at genuine popularity. Orfeo is
back ó indeed, it never went away, or not since Pauline Viardot made it
chic to watch a lady wield a toga way back in 1859, and these days it is
perfectly respectable for men to sing it as well. I have also seen stagings
of Alceste, Armide, Paride ed Elena,
IphigÈnie en Aulide and IphigÈnie en Tauride ó the last
three times, Gluckís penultimate work for the stage and generally
acknowledged masterpiece. Mozart attended every rehearsal for the Vienna
premier in 1779, and one can easily detect its influence in his
Idomeneo, composed the following year. Gluckís influence on the
declamatory style of Berlioz and, indeed, Wagner, is instructive: when
composers want something ìclassicî in the style of the Greeks, Gluck, who
was anything but Greek, seems the obvious model. He all but channels
Euripides ó whose plays are the basis for Alceste and both

Hedging its bets, the Met insured IphigÈnieís success at the
box office by presenting Placido Domingo in the usually baritone role of
Oreste (and weíd so much rather have him sing Gluck, in any register, than
crap like Sly or Cyrano). Having thus guaranteed that all
performances would sell out, the Met went on to secure Stephen Wadsworthís
production, whose kinks had been worked out at the Seattle Opera, and the
services of Susan Graham in the title role, after hearing her sing it in
Chicago and other venues. The mixture worked very well; enthusiasm for all
elements was all the Met could have desired, and lovers of Gluck could feel
their fidelity justified: the merchandise is as good as its repute.

Musically, it could be argued that the productionís tendency to link
number to number, scene to scene, negating the breaks where applause could be
signaled, makes it tougher for audiences to grasp: itís all or nothing. But
opera audiences of today are not the ones Gluck had to face ó they are now
accustomed to long stretches of uninterrupted music-drama. Therefore
Wadsworth filled ó overfilled, Iíd say ó ìemptyî stretches of
music, and even moments with no music to cover them, with loud noises so the
audience would not applaud a sublime aria, or else with dumb shows, acting
and mime, and variously neurotic behavior on the part of his characters. Did
Gluck work so hard to take the clutter and irrelevancy out of opera only to
have Wadsworth put it back? Here ó yes. Oreste is supposed to be crazed,
driven mad by the Furies summoned by his motherís ghost (in Aeschylusís
Eumenides ó you remember) to avenge her murder; Gluck famously
contrasts his measured vocal line against mad, slashing figures in the string
section, a moment subtly underlined by the eveningís expert maestro, Louis

But IphigÈnie, in my experience, has usually been rather a cold fish ó
the stern priestess repressing her nightmarish past, such that the revelation
of her identity is a shock. In the Wadsworth staging, Graham is anything but
cold ó she is loonier here than her brother, hurling herself about the
stage, clawing the walls. The sense that she and the other priestesses are
captives, terrorized into doing the barbariansí bloody will (which includes
human sacrifice) is made superbly real by the two steep rooms into which the
set is divided and the way the priestesses huddle in its corners, but I
missed the regal distance of IphigÈnie that alone seems to explain why she
and Oreste take such a long time to come to reveal their names and discover
they are brother and sister before the accursed house of Atreus suffers yet
another intrafamilial homicide. Grahamís singing, too, though prettily
expressive of her throes, lacked that haughty element, that grandeur that is
my personal preference for Gluck-lich royalty. She is sweet where IphigÈnie
should be awesome. As for her desperate attitudes, clutching of walls and
self, at times when she has sung of her reconciliation with her fate ó this
does not expand her character; it denies the power of music, and of Gluck.
Gluck, I put it to you, should have the last word here ó not Wadsworth or
even Graham.

The relationship between Oreste and Pylade, which often has a homoerotic
frisson in modern stagings of the opera (that was true in Euripidesí day,
too), had nothing of the kind with Domingo in exceptional voice, a dignified,
inward, tragic Oreste, and Paul Groves a thrilling Pylade. That element of
excess that sometimes comes through their frenetic efforts to die in each
otherís stead was not part of the drama on this occasion: they were,
rather, back to back against the forces of darkness. William Shimell, as the
barbaric King Thoas, sounded gruffer than the opera demands ó it was never
pleasant to hear him sing.

IphigÈnie gave more pleasure than any other new production thus
far in the crowded Met season ó Wadsworth was engaging with the opera, not
forcing it into another mold. Besides the bare, rude grandeur of the
templeís back room set, with its gleams of gold and mysterious lighting, I
liked the way several of the operaís celebratory or orgiastic dances
(French opera has always liked more ballet than non-French opera audiences
have cared for) took place all-but-off-stage, so that one glimpsed a few
ecstatic movements without being distracted from starker doings stage

I did object, however, here as in many other productions, to the current
style of giving the audience visual cues every step of the way, a style that
might be called MTV opera direction: the dumb show at the beginning (for
those who have forgotten the story of Iphigeniaís past ó which is not
likely, and in any case is described later on), the spectacular but
undignified descent of the goddess from the ceiling on wires, the appearance
of Clytemnestra within the pillar between Oreste and IphigÈnie, blessing the
two of them ó a lovely stage effect but not, I suggest, what the real,
vengeful Clytemnestra would have been doing and therefore intrusive.

Perhaps most absurd, why is the statue of the goddess facing away from the
stage and the altar? I know theyíre barbarians in Tauris (the modern
Crimea), but what sort of manna are they invoking from this cult statue? Is
it a pun on the ìmoonî in Dianaís nature? It would be nice to have Mr.
Wadsworth explain this particular silliness in the midst of an exciting
staging of a masterpiece too seldom heard or seen.

John Yohalem

image_description=Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862)
product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: IphigÈnie en Tauride
product_by=IphigÈnie: Susan Graham; Oreste: Placido Domingo; Pylades: Paul Groves; Thoas: William Shimell; Diane: Michele Losier.
Conducted by Louis LangrÈe. Production by Stephen Wadsworth.
Metropolitan Opera, December 19.