Primary tabs

Letter From Seattle

October 30, 2007

Gluck's masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride, is getting the production it deserves. Seen at the Seattle Opera on Friday, in the next to last performance of its run before going to the Metropolitan Opera next month (with Susan Graham, Placido Domingo, and Paul Groves), this was an exemplar of how to revive a masterwork with integrity. There were no "concepts" or gratuitous updatings, no tricks to cartoon contemporary "relevance." It relied on the sensitive artistry of designer Thomas Lynch and director Stephen Wadsworth working with the music to balance beautifully the elements in Gluck's vision.
For all the effectiveness of the visual — Wadsworth's painterly placement and disposition of the women's chorus and cast, the credibly ancient Greek/Scythian setting (Thomas Lynch) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz), the most artful lighting (Neil Peter Jampolis) — the music under Gary Thor Wedow and the text carried the deep emotional line of this drama unremittingly.

Gluck's score forges the emotions in a continuous current, not separate arias as set pieces but in connected succession, with the orchestral accompaniment of the almost lyric recitative. Within the large arc of the musical drama, the music moves ahead in curves, inexorably. It treats the changing psychological ferment in this tragedy of the cursed family of Atreus, the chapter dealing with the fate of two of the murdered Agamemnon's children, separated and presumably lost to each other. It is consumed with their violent memories, conflicts of family love and hate, tragic loss, separation, guilt. Iphigenia had been saved from a sacrificial fate by the goddess Diana earlier in her life, as recalled in a dream pantomime at this opera's outset. She protests her destiny as a priestess in the enemy Scythian land of Tauris.

Marie Plette as Iphigenia

All photos by Razarri Lynch

Friday, the title role was sung by Marie Plette, who had alternated in three of eight performances with Nuccia Focile. But as Plette is a light lyric, the sound was harsh when she pushed her voice in the in medias res opening scene. Happily, her later singing, sympathetic and warm, became touching. Following her aria "Unhappy homeland," the female chorus ("Oh unhappy Iphigenia") alternates with her, picking up her final note in a striking reinforcement. No question but that Berlioz learned much from Gluck's opera, especially the treatment of the chorus and the dramatic eloquence and richness of the orchestra, as in the instrumental interlude that comments on this solo-choral scene.

Ultimately, Plette gave a telling performance in conveying Iphigenia's terrible conflict in being compelled to sacrifice the victim whom we know to be her brother. This time she used the inner qualities and vibrance of her voice, not pressing, "I beg you, implacable goddess."
Searing Scenes of Fraternal Love
Shipwrecked on Tauris, captured and marked for sacrifice, are her brother, Orestes ("Gods who pursue me!"), fleeing the curse of his matricide, with his dearest friend Pylades ("We have spent this life together"). Their scenes expressing fraternal love and later desperation, each trying to sacrifice self for the other, formed the searing heart of the work.

The singers were matched, equally expressive, vivid in characterization. Brett Polegato, a baritone with a firm core in his voice supporting a strong dramatic thrust, was the Orestes. William Burden, a tenor with bright, clarion tone, was deeply impressive as Pylades. Orestes' aria "The calm returns to my heart," with a psychological thrust typical for Gluck, uses a repeated two-note phrase, insistent, plangent.

William Burden as Pylades and Brett Polegato as Orestes

The baritone Phillip Joll as Thoas, evil and tormented King of the Scythians, either overdid things or is having problems, as his voice was taut and stressed. David Adam Moore, baritone, was superior as Thoas' minister. Michèle Losier, a high mezzo-soprano, was excellent as Diana, at the very end, in the goddess' aria of pardon. Ani Maldjian and Leena Chopra were fine as priestesses. For the dancing Gluck specified, Daniel Pelzig had his dancers work in a small space, the five females whirling, and later the five males tumbling; it was more doable than usual.

A great chamber (two-thirds of the stage, right) contains the sacrificial altar, a huge statue of Diana, symbolically facing away from the action, and, on the back wall, high-up windows above a great bronze frieze, nine flaming lamps spaced irregularly on the wall's dark red surface, and a few sculptures of gods variously placed. To the left, separated by stage-high walls, are a gray stone antechamber where Orestes and Pylades are chained, and farther left, an area outside where soldiers stand guard in a rainstorm.

Strong contrasts of architecture and color enhance the drama, brick red for the full-skirted dresses of the Greek women attending on Iphigenia, the bronze of the frieze, a play of sparkle suggesting blood trickling down the dark red wall, blue scarves (the Greek color), chartreuse for the costume of the murdered mother, Clytemnestra. She appears as a ghost figure slaying Agamemnon in pantomime, and later as illuminated images in the walls during the haunted Iphigenia's fantasies.

Jampolis' lighting shifts the scene, moving it from one chamber to another. The chorus holds in frozen position in the darkened main chamber during the action in the antechamber. Diana is lit dramatically when, as the dea ex machina, she descends to the altar to save Orestes from the sacrificial knife and remove from him the Furies' torment. In the opera's touching coda, the lighting finds Iphigenia at the side wall, tormented by memories, clutching the chartreuse scarf symbolizing her mother. As she crosses to her brother, whom she has newly and at long last recognized, the light illuminates their embrace, a portrait with the soft and moving music that brings the opera to a beautiful close.

As addendum, it should be noted that the excellent acoustics at the Seattle Opera's McCaw Hall permit the sung text — for Iphigénie the French — to be heard with exceptional clarity. Also, the cell-phone admonition is given silently, on the supertitle screen, with no recorded nagging as at the San Francisco Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. Civilized and just as effective.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.