IphigÈnie en Tauride at the Washington National Opera

The production is also the swan song for
Placido Domingo, WNO’s departing artistic director and the star of
IphigÈnie’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 ”pera 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 IphigÈnie 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
IphigÈnie’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 IphigÈnie). 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
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
IphigÈnie 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

image_description=Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862
product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: IphigÈnie en Tauride
product_by=Click here for cast and production information
product_id=Click here for a photo gallery

Above: Iphigenia by Anselm Feuerbach, 1862