As one might anticipate, after the COC’s stunning Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Canadian Robert Carsen last year, Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris, with Carsen again at the directorial helm, is equally bold and haunting in concept and realization. The minimalist set of Tobias Hoheisel is formed of unadorned and isolating expanses that, in turn, are enhanced by the intensely focused or subdued lighting of Robert Carsen and Peter Van Ptaet. Each lit character or grouping in turn seems almost accused into existential solitude. In surrounding hues of ungiving blues and blacks and browns, without chromatic variety, one is aggressively defined in glaring light. One is reduced to mere existence. It is clear, at a single glance, that Carsen, like the opera’s composer, is getting down to basics and means business.
Existence is a perilous state, as Carsen notes in the program: “Iphigenia in Tauris is as near as we can come to experiencing Greek drama in opera….Its plot is the stuff of nightmares….and in this opera we are constantly in the presence of death.” In this severely bleak setting, human existence, whose only worth seems to be the brief shadows it makes, is literally boxed in. Costumes too are fundamental with no adornment and whatever mark a life makes in this cold universe, as we are shown, will be through statements of voice and movement. Because “the characters are continually pushed to the limits of human endurance” it is through inner resources that they will make their mark and, if at all, survive.
This sense of existential isolation is especially dramatic in scenes that use footlights. The opera opens with the riveting Susan Graham as Iphegenia progressing downstage and creating an enlarging shadow behind her. About twenty dancers frenzy about and represent, we soon realize, both a chaotic inner state of these characters and their threatening outer world. Dancers run to the walls and try to climb them, as if to escape. The death black set suggests now a cell and now an altar and the dynamic ambiguity of the place is quite unsettling. Later, Iphigenia will again project a shadow while holding a sword and this time the sword’s shadow will descend upon the actual body of her brother Orestes who awaits his death by her hand. Talk about menacing shadows!
In a signature role she has sung in a number of major opera houses, mezzo Susan Graham reveals a number of qualities of voice that, taken together, make for operatic gold. Her voice is ripe in tone and, with a secure linearity in phrasing, is able to enlarge into an explosion of emotion or recede into a whisper with no break in her vocal thread or beauty of sound. Graham’s many shifts from nuance to nuance are graceful without lapse and at times, in gentler moments, her voice has the quality of watercolour. Her Iphigenia seems infused with a cosmic purity that seems alien to this world of blood, although she is certainly an active part of it. Moreover, each emotional detail is given its due by Graham.
As King Thoas, Mark S. Doss proves to be a rock solid presence in both voice and figure. There is neither front nor back to his voice where colourings might linger and, as such an unrelenting and ungiving force of immovable aggression, he contributes an archetypally firm dimension to the tale. The pairing of tenor Joseph Kaiser as Pylades and Russell Braun as Orestes proves convincingly intense in gentle passions and poignantly heartfelt when the two become more vulnerable. Both singers accommodate each arising emotion with implied but quieted grandeur and they negotiate their relationship through increasing peril with appealing humanity. Their voices are firm and vibrant, and handle emotional specifics, in the vigorous and sensitive writing by Gluck, with meticulous and seemingly spontaneous ease and poised intensity. “What joy that my death will save my friend’s life” sings Pylades. So much touching agony over amitie!
Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado handles abrupt shifts in volume, tone and tempo with pointed sensitivity and makes Gluck’s score almost a complex and commenting character to the dramatic unfoldment on stage. His orchestra’s sound is economical yet quite potent, moving from cloudlike lightness to frenzy and back again. Gluck’s music can be lunatic with activity and also formalized in acknowledgement of inner intensity that wants to burst from containment. His intention was to create opera of “beautiful simplicity” and thus his music is effective with its discretion in creating musical and dramatic effects through intriguing groupings of instruments, intelligent selectivity in musical devices like staccato motifs, and compelling interplay and juxtapositioning of voices.
In this production we are gripped in watching individuals and groups physically isolated into themselves. The choreography by Philippe Giraudeau effectively uses a suffocating sense of confinement in the setting to enhance a desperation to escape in the dancers. Having the Chorus off stage adds an otherworldly echo to the atmosphere and also to Iphigenia’s presence. The opera ends with the massive side and rear walls rising partially to slowly reveal a pure blinding light against which Iphigenia and Orestes and Pylades are silhouetted in another stunning visual display. We feel such effects in the gut and are moved by the evocative, beautifully human singing of the cast throughout. A main strength of this production is that it unbalances our conscious expectations and moves below our awareness where we have no choice but to react. Thus the world of Greek tragedy, recreated exquisitely operatic, is made to be our own.