Saturday, March 5, 2011

Met - Iphigénie en Tauride - 03/02/11

Composer: Christoph Willibald Gluck
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: Stephen Wadsworth
Iphigénie: Susan Graham
Oreste: Placido Domingo
Pylade: Paul Groves

Neither Greek tragedies nor Baroque music have ever been my cup of tea, so I really was not sure if I wanted to bother with Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met at all. But Susan Graham and Placido Domingo are two phenomenal singers who have never disappointed me, and the prospect of hearing them together eventually made me forget all my other misgivings about the opera itself. After all, if it was good enough for them to star in, it couldn’t be all bad… Truth be told, the fact that the whole thing was supposed to barely last two and a half hours did not hurt either, especially on a week night. So there I was, back at the Met on Wednesday night and ready to be transported in the mysterious land of Tauride where after the Trojan War the remaining of Agamemnon’s family endures various agonies before the unexpected happy end.

Although it is based on Euripides' tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, no in-depth knowledge of Greek mythology is required, but a certain willingness to suspend disbelief is essential to make sense of the far-fetched plot. The unsavory ties of a clearly dysfunctional family and some barbaric religious rituals are the main, obviously unpleasant, elements at the center of the story, which makes the subdued refinement of the music and clean lines of the singing all the more drastically contrasting. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Gluck thankfully got rid of the typical fussiness of the Baroque genre to create “serious art”. “Serious”, however, does not have to mean “too stuffy to be enjoyed”, especially with the three magnetic leads we had the privilege to hear on Wednesday.
Placido Domingo, who has just turned 70, did not seem affected at all by this brand new decade and readily threw himself into the part of Oreste with the unconditional abandon of a beginner who still has everything to prove. At this point of his career, where he can do everything and anything – including nothing – it was quite refreshing to watch him blend in as seamlessly as possible in the cast, even if his modest demeanor could not come close to overrule his formidable presence. The much beloved voice was still there too, his famed richness beautifully resonating in the full opera house and effortlessly complementing the nobility of his character. He is not a natural baritone, but he is a natural performer, and he flawlessly nailed his part… one more time.
Holding your own opposite the world’s most famous opera star cannot be easy, but Susan Graham certainly has the professional chops necessary to pull it off, and she did. No wall flower herself, she made sure that her Iphigénie was not just a victim haunted by her past but a strong woman fighting to be in charge of her decisions as well, appropriately shifting her voice from hurt innocence to iron-clad will as her character evolved.
To complete this dream team, tenor Paul Grove, a Met veteran not as well-known but certainly as talented as his two other castmates, was an impeccably convincing Pylade, projecting just the right amount of vocal power and stage presence to make Oreste's lifelong friend brilliantly come alive.
The décors and costumes were lovely in rich earth tones and harmoniously completed one another. I could have done without the borderline silly dance numbers, but it was a generally very engaging production, not in the least thanks to the warm, polished sounds coming from the orchestra. Disregarding an overly drammatic approach for a much more direct and efficient simplicity, maestro Patrick Summers elicited the perfect musical background for the action to unfold. Throughout the whole evening, singers and conductor remained steadily in sync to honor Gluck’s subtle sense of drama and make this production the winner it really is.

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