Iphigénie en Tauride, a memorable night of singing as drama

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 12/1/2007
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera

 Susan Graham, Placido Domingo

Susan Graham, Placido Domingo

Silence can be a powerful dramatic tool. It is used however, to awkward effect, in the beginning of this version of “Iphigenie en Tauride” as the curtain swiftly and noiselessly rises to reveal what looks like a torture chamber. After some moments, a woman is dragged onstage breaking the silence by screaming “No! No!” Silence again reigns as she is thrown upon a slab representing Diana’s alter, and a huge knife is thrust into her heart. Only after this unconvincing invention, which turned the spotlight upon producer Stephen Wadsworth, did Gluck’s opera begin. It was wonderful to hear how quickly the magnificent opening phrases from the orchestra altered the stagy atmosphere of that false start to one of authenticity and dignity. The music, so elegantly and stylishly played and sung throughout, would surely have pleased Gluck, the opera reformer, for the principle singers, in form technically and dramatically, underscored his view that vocal display, is a matter secondary to the work itself, to be used only in its service.

Susan Graham’s compelling rendition of ‘O toi, qui prolongeas nos jours’ was a wonderful example of vocal perfection and dramatic commitment,  which employed a mixture of theatrical realism with stylized gestures when, for example, she tries to murder Oreste but cannot bring herself to do it. 

Gluck is known to have been deeply involved with acting, as well as singing, during the musical preparation of his operas, and it was heartening to witness the marriage of these two elements in this production, which was especially impressive in Oreste’s mad scene. Tenor Plácido Domingo sang this baritone role flawlessly with a fresh, youthful ring in his voice that belies his many years on stage. Perhaps one might say in regard to his highly polished deportment, ‘what craftsmanship Domingo displays,’ but it has always been difficult to become forgetful of his craftsmanship, and wholly drawn into the character. Nevertheless, this was a brilliant performance.

Paul Groves, sang the role of Pylade with occasional difficulty, especially in the shifting from middle to top register, but he also brought considerable dramatic depth to the character, and although William Schimell also struggled sometimes with the vocal and dramatic demands put upon Thaos, his singing of ‘De noirs pressentiments’ was deeply moving. It must be said that the conducting of Louis Langrée was nothing less than superb. The beauty of tone, rhythmic grace, elegant phrasing and impeccable style that issued from the orchestra, soloists, and chorus, were by and large the result of his intelligent and capable work.                  
In regard to the sets, Gluck specifies that Act I take place outside, before the atrium of the temple of Diana, and that the second act be set within. The stark dungeon, which glared at the audience for the entire evening, threatened to cast a pall over this superlative performance, and could have been avoided simply by following the composer’s wise instruction that there be a scenic contrast of the external at the onset, and the internal, as the drama unfolds with fate proffering no escape. What was shown on stage could hardly be called a temple and certainly reflected none of the elegance and dignity of the music. Nothing however could begin to detract from the effects of the high artistic level of the music making. This was one of the season’s most admirable achievements.