In Dark Temple, Antiquity’s Sober Doings

02.14.11
Patrick Summers
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

When the Metropolitan Opera gave the American premiere of Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” in 1916, the critic for The New York Times, Richard Aldrich, praised the work but added, “Whether the opera will make a place for itself in the admiration of this public is something of a question.” It was too sober, too strange, he said, to be popular.

His worries made sense. There are few vocal fireworks in “Iphigénie,” and the emotions are restrained and stylized. Gluck, in his operas, cleared away the ornamentation of the Baroque, the sense of art for art’s sake, replacing it with what he called “a beautiful simplicity”: clear vocal lines, orchestral music focused on the drama and earnest seriousness of purpose. But he required seriousness of his audience too.

Though the Met continued to perform other Gluck operas, including “Orfeo ed Euridice,” with some regularity, Aldrich’s doubts were well founded. “Iphigénie” returned to the company only in 2007, in a production by Stephen Wadsworth starring the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the tenor Plácido Domingo. An impassioned revival with those singers, which opened Saturday evening, confirms that there is no reason for this radiant opera not to be a repertory staple.

It tells a classic story of the Trojan War in an alternative version. Here Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigénie is not sacrificed by her father (to secure favorable winds for his army’s journey to Troy) but is at the last moment spirited away by the gods to faraway Tauride.

The opera’s Iphigénie, haunted and mournful 15 years later, is a nearly perfect fit for Ms. Graham. She started off singing with floating richness, emanating tenderness and hurt in arias with the quiet eloquence of prayer, and gained power and authority as the opera went on. If she lacks a certain otherworldly intensity, her deeply sympathetic portrayal fits Mr. Wadsworth’s earthy production.

The director and designers avoided the neo-Classicism of Gluck’s time in favor of a style more authentically pagan, although with some risible hand gestures and corny dance moves for the chorus. In a decaying temple, torches flicker, and rich reds and burnished golds smolder. It is all moodily effective, and it suited the Met orchestra’s warmly powerful, propulsive performance under the conductor Patrick Summers.

Mr. Domingo, a savvy, intelligent performer, plays Iphigénie’s long-lost brother, Oreste. Through canny pacing, charisma and force of will he manages to surmount some shaky sustained tones and a lack of flexibility in faster passages (the man is 70, after all) to create a noble, physically fearless, satisfyingly sung performance. As his companion Pylade, the tenor Paul Groves captured Gluck’s beautiful simplicity, singing with shining tone and a fluid line.

Gluck’s operas can seem bloodless in description but are vividly involving when you’re immersed in them. After the young Schubert heard “Iphigénie en Tauride” for the first time, he “was totally beside himself over the effects of this magnificent music,” a friend reported, “and asserted that there could be nothing more beautiful in the world.” Leaving the Met on Saturday, you didn’t find that notion so far-fetched.