IphigÈnie en Aulide at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

A sleepy papal
city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern
bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its
acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective
soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims)
in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the
“leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a
“futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an
improbably grandiose ceiling mural — what opera features a charioteer
mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other
arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas
— who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic
from this very stage.

The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who
thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said,
“You’re lucky you came tonight — it was probably your last
chance — they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions
are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I
got to a second performance.

In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s IphigÈnie
en Aulide
, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the
original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged
(conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town
announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the
Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece.

IphigÈnie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience
— the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias,
and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery
vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience
demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the
opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by
applause on two occasions — an outburst for IphigÈnie’s great Act
III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for
Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,”
near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled.
As for the younger ones — at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows
of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited
and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of
Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the
entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was
a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.

Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on
the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could
abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again
(Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the
chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical
manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward
so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI
wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape,
tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than
Gluck’s stately verses permitted — since I’d spent the day
observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese
tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But
costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in
1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with
Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.

Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the
Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in
the portico of the house — and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a
Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the
higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the
March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that
ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg
seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting
force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the
26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the
Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the
house — this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and
Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to,
and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.

However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira
Stoyanova — little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling
Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s
Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a
popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller
and La Juive.

Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of
IphigÈnie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily
produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the
opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the
end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that IphigÈnie has proved
heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible
French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the
dignity of the ComÈdie FranÁaise. There was a lovely moment when, having been
presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, IphigÈnie, in
private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of
taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her
sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of
tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her
voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the
composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy
part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in
white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up ‡ la Grecque. (She looked
far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in
the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)

Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of
the stage whenever they have a lot to sing — a courtesy singers delight
in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually
did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one,
to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who
swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in
Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly
rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or
angry choruses was very well managed.

Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck
must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept
the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s
edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s
revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists
(in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of IphigÈnie’s transference
to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the
occasion — from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the
conclusion of Tannh‰user — but left those of us familiar with
IphigÈnie en Tauride more comfortable.

John Yohalem

image_description=Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862)
product_title=C. W. Gluck: IphigÈnie en Aulide
product_by=IphigÈnie: Krassimira Stoyanova; Clytemnestre: Ekaterina Gubanova; Diane: Giacinta Nicotra; Agamemnon: Alexey Tikhomirov; Achille: Avi Klemberg (March 24)/Piero Pretti (March 26); Calchas: Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev (March 24)/Riccardo Zenellato (March 26). Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Production by Yannis Kokkos. Conducted by Riccardo Muti.
product_id=Above: IphigÈnie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862)