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A CurtainUp Review
Iphigénie en Tauride
By David Lipfert
City Opera has substantially transformed itself over the past two decades. In the old days you could count on maybe a good soprano and once in a while a respectable tenor. Now most roles are fairly well cast, sometimes with singers who have previously appeared at the Met. Productions still employ non-standard approaches, but they usually arrive in New York after an out-of-town tryout, typically at Glimmerglass Opera's summer festival. This safe experimentalism gives an opportunity for revisions that previously were possible only after a premere but also raises expectations on the dramatic side. Incremental adjustments over the years to improve acoustics at the New York State Theatre, originally designed primarily for ballet, have yielded excellent results. Under Christopher Keene the orchestra made tangible gains which seem to he holding up. In sum, this is a company that gives increasing pleasure.
Atypical for an eighteenth-century opera, the plot of Iphigénie en Tauride is remarkably uncomplicated. To prevent Iphigénie's sacrifice in Aulis, Diana has abducted her to Tauris to become a high priestess for the Sythians. After avenging the murder of her father Agamemnon, her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade are shipwrecked on this island just in time to be sacrificed. Eventually each character discovers the identity of the others, and united they defeat the Sythian king. At Diana's behest all prepare to return to Mycene in Greece.
In her productions, Francesca Zambello typically deconstructs operas to provide a controversial modern reading, as in her Met Lucia. In Ms. Zambello's Iphigénie, debatable elements are relatively few. A simulated gratuitous rape of the title character by Sythian King Thoas passes by quickly enough. The trendy thing of late is to show blood and wounds resulting from off-stage torture, as in this summer's Palestrina by the Royal Opera at the Met. In this production Pylade reenters covered with such evidence after a session with the soldiers. A social historian will have to elucidate the possible connections to contemporary life in the fast lane. Something beyond a relationship couched in the effusive classical language of friendship between barechested Oreste and Pylade was implied in their frequent embraces. So much for the "provocative" ideas in this staging.
Regarding the more mundane job of telling the story, there are many curious moments. Ms. Zambello with stage director Paula Williams have created a series of rather wonderful stage pictures, but theirs is essentially a static concept though with lots of movement as the chorus scrambles to get into the next pose. Iphigénie is made to sing atop a ladder while fetching an idol, an unnecessary risk for little artistic benefit. Most curious is a pool at the left, which all the principals and priestesses eventually wade through. Poor Christine Goerke as Iphigénie gets totally drenched during the rainstorm at the beginning and has to sing that way for an extended part of the first half. Invented ritual for the ceremonies simply does not ring true; nor does the goddess Diana's kneeling before Oreste make sense. Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting design added variety to Marina Draghici's unit set. Dunya Ramicova opted for monochrome robes for Iphigénie and companions.
The musical side redeems the evening, especially the strong leads. All too frequently, selecting the French edition over a possible Italian one means using vocally underpowered singers. Ms. Goerke's ample soprano displays a single rich color that emphasizes Iphigénie's strength of character. Baritone Gary Lehman gives a passionate reading to Oreste, though at a second hearing he forced his voice beyond its current possibilities during a mad scene. As Pylade, tenor William Burden's ability to mix easy head tone with his upper register makes him an asset in the French repertory. Smaller parts were handled well. The women's chorus was outstanding. With solid musical performances like this one, Gluck's operas may get the hearing in New York that they deserve.