Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met with Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo

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Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Metropolitan Opera House
February 26, 2011 Matinee, HD Transmission/Simulcast

Iphigénie en Tauride
Christoph Willibald Gluck
Libretto – Nicolas-François Guillard

Iphigénie – Susan Graham
Oreste – Plácido Domingo
Pylade – Paul Groves
Thoas – Gordon Hawkins
Diane – Julie Boulianne
First Priestess – Lei Xu
Second Priestess – Cecelia Hall
Scythian Minister – David Won
Clytemnestre – Jacqueline Antaramian
Agamemnon – Rob Besserer
TV Director – Barbara Willis Sweet

Conductor – Patrick Summers
Production – Stephen Wadsworth
Set Designer – Thomas Lynch
Costume designer – Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting Designer – Neil Peter Jampolis
Choreographer – Daniel Pelzig

Iphigénie en Tauride is a co-production with Seattle Opera.


What a splendid idea to revive Gluck’s final masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride, on two great stages at opposite ends of the continent. Gluck, the great reformer, has been too long little more than a  chapter — or, worse — a section of a chapter in music history books, and recent attempts to bring his works to life on 21st century stages are for the most part commendable, whether they succeed or not, although I did sense a touch of cynicism in the excruciatingly fashionable Orphée of Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi — and a fashion statement (or ad) is not what we want in these unmitigatedly dignified works.

First performed at the Paris Opéra in 1779, Iphigénie en Tauride was Gluck’s last major opera, and many consider it to be his most perfect realization of his reform agenda. He adapted it for a Vienna revival in German in 1781, rewriting the role of Oreste for tenor. The Paris version is generally preferred, and this is the version chosen by Seattle and the Met, with Placido Domingo singing as a baritone. The subject goes back to Euripides’ inventive treatment of his own apocryphal version of the myth, according to which Artemis took pity on the little girl, whose father was about to sacrifice her, and substituted a deer. Iphigeneia was transported to this remote barbarian city, where her duty was to sacrifice foreigners to the goddess, a fate as miserable for her as death. Gluck’s librettist, however, Nicolas-François Guillard, didn’t have to go back to Euripides; tragedy for the subject. It was extremely popular in the eighteenth century, both as a play and as an opera. Guillard chose to adapt a play by the otherwise obscure Claude Guimond de La Touche. Gluck’s Iphigénie was extremely popular in its day, and it reamains one his his more frequently performed works — although not at the Met, where it was last performed in 1916.

While Morris and Mizrahi, for all the hype surrounding their production, stayed pretty much within the received concept of Gluckian opera, Stephen Wadsworth has opted for a decisively revisionist approach, in which he attempts to enliven the show with as much action as possible. In a traditional production of a Gluckian opera the experience of movement is usually confined to the ballets. Wadsworth, on the other hand, provides as much action as possible, along with grand dramatic gestures and attitudes by the principals, seamlessly blended with the lively choreography of Daniel Pelzig — all on a richly colored and textured set by his frequent collaborator, Donald Lynch. In it the stage is divided into three parts, so that two or even three actions can be played out simultaneously. (In the finale, in fact, an open door on the back wall allows the dancers a fourth space in which to exercise their art. As handsome and appropriate as I found the set, I could not entirely understand the function of its three sections until later in the opera, when all came into full use. Most of the action took place in the rightmost section, which occupied almost half the stage. The center section eventually served well enough as a prison, occupying perhaps a third more. The narrowest part, barely more than a corridor, served as a reserve for pensive or sleepy prison guards or as an escape route. This meant that Iphigénie had to remain on stage almost throughout the entire opera, even when she is not engaged in the scene.

One might well ask whether this ever got to be a bit much. I’d have to answer that it was not. While the hand of the director was hardly unobtrusive, it came across as a fluent, animated reinterpretation of Gluckian dramaturgy, which is probably closer to the spirit of what he tried to achieve than the reverent literalism of early 20th century tradition.

If I was puzzled on a couple of occasions by seemingly unmotivated bursts of activity, for example a bit of histrionics for Iphigénie in the finale, when she becomes hysterical, presumably the result of her years of suffering, at the moment of joyous fulfillment. Dramatically this is not absurd, but it seemed that way in the house. The timing of it seemed sudden and out of place. I suspect this may have had something to do with the fact that this matinée performance was being broadcast Live in HD. I have to discuss this with my colleague, Bettina Norton of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, who expressed her own reservations from the video end (“To the Met: Don’t Ruin a Good Thing”). If both the Live in HD and the house audiences are having problems with what they see and/or hear, then the Met’s HD policies need some rethinking. The audiences in the house really must take precedent. Well, for one thing, they’re paying a lot more for their seat, but, more importantly, opera is only really opera in the house — and the same applies to music and theatre of any kind. The enthusiastic reception of the HD projections tells us that they answer a need, and a need beyond just opera on the cheap, (There’s of course no need if you live in New York. The sound is excellent in the cheapest seats, and in most you can see everything worth seeing.) Like the old Busby Berkeley musicals, the projection, with their exaggerated perspectivess, go beyond anything one can see on stage, and perhaps that’s one of the problems:the fact that people are entrenched in their habit of viewing things on screens in glorious two-dimensionality.

Musically the performance was on a very high level, although Gordon Hawkins as Thoas was quite wobbly in his support, and conductor Patrick Summers a bit draggy in certain passages which were highly active on stage and would have benefitted from a faster tempo and more bite. Gardiner or Christie would have been right on top of them. Susan Graham was everything you’d expect her to be, striking the right balance between dramatic immediacy and good taste, always her rich and brilliant self in voice. Plácido Domingo was the wonder he almost always is, fully equal to the vocal and not unathletic dramatic demands of Oreste. It was especially interesting to hear him in a part that is sung by both tenors and baritones. Paul Groves was especially impressive as Pylade, shining through with a brilliant and finely shaped tenor line in this unusually vociferous treatment of his part. (From Aeschylus’ Choephoroi and Sophocles’ Electra one tends to think of him as the silent one.) The Met Orchestra played for the most part with committed unanimity, although, as I have mentioned, there were some sluggish moments, and Maestro Summers was especially sensitive to the more lyrical and Apollonian moments in the score.

It’s the critic’s job to ask questions and take note of details, but that should not prevent anyone from simply enjoying this imaginative and vivid reincarnation of a classic which is more respected than enjoyed. And nothing distracted from the dramatic crux of the play, how Iphigénie’s salvation became a torture. For this bitter and thoroughly modern irony we have only Euripides to thank.

And if you don’t want to be puzzled by strange, arbitrary events on stage, avoid the Saturday matinée, where the needs of the HD broadcast seem to take precedent over what the audience sees in the house.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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