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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Opera Review: Iphigenie en Tauride at the Met

The Met's new production of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride is an import from the Seattle Opera, anchored by two singers familiar to New York opera lovers. On Tuesday night, Placido Domingo (as Orestes) and Susan Graham (in the title role) were the stars of a powerful theatrical evening.

Written at the very end of Gluck's life, Iphigenie consolidated the composer's musical theories with its emotional arias, heightened dramatic tension, and unified flow of musical ideas. However, it fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century, and has been absent from the Met's stage for 90 years. The libretto is based on a play by Euripedes, telling of the further adventures of Iphigenie. She is the daughter of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who was willing to sacrifice her to get a favorable wind in order to sail to the Trojan War. When he "killed" her, Iphigenie was magically transported to Tauris (present day Crimea) and forced to sacrifice humans at the bidding of the king. She is also the sister of Orestes, who is in turn tormented by the Furies for murdering his mother, Klytemnestra. The next victim on the altar, she learns, is to be Orestes himself.

The family's murderous history is dealt with in this production, a stark, intense staging by Stephen Wadsworth, the director whose Santa Fe/New York City Opera staging of Handel's Xerxes helped revive interest in baroque opera while making stars out of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and David Daniels. Here, the action is set in a closed, claustrophobic space--bleak and dusty rooms that saw nothing but death. The ominous air was added to by the decision to shackle Orestes and Pylades--to the walls, to the altar--for much of the action--their struggles to escape the coming sacrifice evoked modern horror films like Saw.

Both Placido Domingo and Susan Graham put this intensity of feeling into their dramatic performance, fusing word and gesture in a way to make classicists proud. In addition to strong acting, their singing is to be commended: Mr. Domingo sounds more comfortable in the French than ever before--the idiosyncratic pronunciations were kept to a minimum. Susan Graham gave a powerful performance, baring a full range of emotions, from commanding priestess to tender, loving sister. This role has become a trademark of this American mezzo, and her rich voice showed command of the character's nuances. At the end of the opera, Graham's performance was capped by a post-traumatic stress breakdown onstage, showing the audience the trauma of Iphigenie's ordeal as a priestess of Diana.

They were aided by nimble orchestral support. Louis Langree did an exceptional job on the podium--this production marks his Met debut. and a strong secondary cast, particularly the Pylades of Paul Groves. Groves held his own with Domingo's mighty stage presence in a solid performance.

Photo © Ken Howard, 2007
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.