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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Opera Review: The Music of the Future

Juilliard presents Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The cast of Iphigenie en Aulide at Juilliard.
(L.-R. Ying Fang, Virginie Verrez, Brandon Cedel, Yunpeng Wang.)
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2015 The Juilliard School.
The composer Christoph Willibald Gluck was a key figure in the transition from the baroque era to the so-called classical period that followed. The agency of this revolution was opera, specifically his seminal works Orphée et Eurydice and  Iphigénie en Aulide. The latter of these was his first work for the Paris stage and was presented Tuesday night in a new production at the Juilliard School's Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

Gluck replaced the formal, structured repetition and strict divisions of baroque opera with a taut, fluid style that focused on dialogue between characters but still allowed room for the singers to stretch out. The libretto for Iphegenie (based on a play by Racine) has immediacy and thrust, and the music, with its occasional veers into minor key and divided writing for violins influenced the music of Richard Wagner.

This production, mounted by director David Paul was the fifth collaboration between the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center based conservatory. It was semi-staged, with minimal set and occasional lighting effects. Singers appeared upstage, moving around and in front of the orchestra to re-enact the story of the Greek princess marked for sacrifice. With the chorus arranged around the orchestra and the singers sometimes singing directly over the orchestra, the evening had a ritualized quality that suited the story.

This was a strong young cast, drawn from Juilliard singers who are also currently appearing at the Met. Ying Fang was Iphigénie, the Greek princess whose fate hangs in the balance. She sang with sweet, potent tone although her character is curiously neutral in comparison with the others struggling over her fate. Yunpeng Wang was cool and magnetic as Agamemnon, with real stage presence and potent baritone instrument.

He was perfectly matched with the French mezzo Virginie Verrez whose fiery Clytemnestre dominated the second half of the evening. In her third act aria, she began in a prone position, rising to her feet and singing with full tone and blood-curdling passion. This was the kind of performance that could have burned down the scenery--had there been any. The intensity of Ms. Verrez' performance carried into her interactions with Mr. Wang's Agamemnon. Even in a semi-staged performance, one could watch their marriage disintegrate, this sub-plot reminding the viewer of the further ills that awaited the House of Atreus.

Tenor Andrew Stenson was bright and ardent as Achille, the Greek hero who appears here as a quintessential man of action. In this version of the myth, he is engaged to Iphigénie and becomes her rescuer, attempting to save his intended from the sacrificial knife. Running about the stage accompanied by his friend and comrade Patroclus (Takaoki Onishi), his presence injected welcome energy into the drama. Finally, Liv Redpath made a brief but memorable appearance as the goddess Diana, her potent instrument projecting from the back of the stage. In the smaller role of Calchas (Agamemnon's high priest) bass-baritone Brandon Cedel displayed the kind of rich and luxuriant tone that speaks of great potential in years to come.

Conductor Jane Glover led the period performance ensemble Juilliard415 from the center of the stage, occasionally glancing back at the singers as her hands gave cues. Apart from some muddled textures in the Prelude, this was a performance of intensity that gathered momentum as the drama progressed. Period instruments (natural horns, wood flutes, oboes with flared bells) lent an otherworldly quality to the music, shedding harsh light on a story that is, after all about human sacrifice.

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