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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Opera Review: Bishop Takes Sacrifice

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met
Paul Groves (left) and Placìdo Domingo, trapped in Iphigénie en Tauride
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera
The dreaded "backstage plague" struck the Met on Wednesday night, sidelining mezzo-soprano Susan Graham for that evening's performance of Iphigénie en Tauride. Placìdo Domingo went on as Orest, although he too was suffering from a cold.

The story of Iphigénie picks up where Elektra leaves off. Orestes is hounded by the Furies, running for his life in the company of his friend Pylade. He winds up in Tauride (modern-day Scythia) where he is scheduled to be sacrificed by the high priestess of Diana. What he doesn't know is that this is his sister, Iphigénie.

The Metropolitan Opera makes a policy of hiring cover singers to take over a role at the last minute in the event of illness. On Wednesday evening, it was Elizabeth Bishop in the title role. Ms. Bishop, a winner at the 1993 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, made a strong impression as the Greek princess-turned-priestess in Gluck's drama.

Like Ms. Graham, she is an American singer, with a good command of French and a strong onstage presence. However, she was at her best in the lower reaches of the role, as her voice tended to compress and develop a vibrato whenever she reached for her higher range. She was well matched with the ailing Mr. Domingo as Orestes. The 70-year-old super-tenor managed some fine, heroic singing despite his illness. There was nothing wrong with his acting.

With one star down and another suffering, that left tenor Paul Groves to carry the evening as Orestes' best friend, Pylade. Mr. Groves has a fine heroic instrument and an idiomatic command of French. He took the lead in the third act, singing his ensemble with the other two leads as Orestes and Pylade each attempt to be first on the altar under Iphigénie's knife.

The second half of the show had more momentum than the first, with a driven dynamic intensity as the cast settled into their roles. Patrick Summers led a crystal-clear performance in the pit, allowing the audience to hear the radical, almost revolutionary nature of Gluck's score, which paved the way for every opera that followed in the next 250 years.

Stephen Wadsworth's production remains an imaginative exercise in grimness that combines elements of Indiana Jones and Saw--imagining Diana's temple and its bloody altar as a chamber of horrors. That said, the imaginative use of actual torches on the stage, carefully choreographed ritual dances and (unaccountably) a ballet that takes place behind a big, solid wall (thus, invisible to the audience) makes this one of the more innovative productions of the Peter Gelb era.

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