Iphigénie en Aulide & Iphigénie en Tauride
Gens, von Otter, Haller; Antoun, Testé/Delunsch, Haller; Beuron, Lapointe, Alvaro; Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera, Minkowski. Opus Arte 7115 (Blu-ray) or 1099 (2 DVDs), 229 mins (operas) + 39 mins (bonus), subtitled
For this production, filmed in 2011, director Pierre Audi and conductor Marc Minkowski have joined the two Iphigénie operas of Gluck into a single span of theater. The three acts of Iphigénie en Aulide, shorn of a good deal of ceremonial and ballet music, are performed straight through in a trim one hundred eight minutes. After intermission, the four acts of Iphigénie en Tauride, just about uncut, are performed straight through. The goddess Diane, who appears in both operas, is acted and sung by Salomé Haller for the duration. No soprano could perform both Iphigénies in one evening, so Véronique Gens sings the role in Aulide, while Mireille Delunsch takes over (the character having aged fifteen years in the interim) in Tauride. A stark raised playing area in Michael Simon's design is surrounded by treacherous-looking aluminum steps and some scaffolding; these are rearranged a bit to show the change of location. The orchestra is onstage, behind the singers. This arrangement was doubtless difficult for the musicians but perhaps contributed to the real sense of performers listening to each other that is a hallmark of this release. The evening, which is long by the clock, never drags. There is a sense of inevitability, and the cumulative effect is considerable.
The overriding impression of hearing the operas in this way is that Gluck has written music in which everything matters. Moreover, it is clear that Gluck's music responds best to an orchestra of period instruments. The oboes have a distinctive woody tone, and the violins (who play nearly nonstop, since there is no secco recitative) have a vocal quality, even in the occasional brutal passages. Even the timpani and trumpets have a rounded, yielding quality, and whenever Gluck asks for gracieux, Minkowski provides it. He also produces other Gluckian ideals, such as "majestic but with expression." The choral forces of the Netherlands Opera likewise operate on an extremely high level. They truly sing as one voice, reminding us of the original idea of the Greek chorus.
The solo singing is very fine as well, particularly on Aulide. Anne Sofie von Otter's Clytemnestre is a supreme example of secure vocal technique inextricably allied to theatricality. The voice is all of a piece, and the characterization is complete. Her first air in Act II portrays the Gluckian situation of a person whose whole world has come down to one single thought. Von Otter has done many fine things in her career, but this may be the finest. Her Agamemnon, Nicolas Testé, matches her. He is commanding in Act I, then he offers a bravura traversal of moods from declamation to arioso to song in his great Act II monologue. The tone is unwavering, but the words are always in front. Gens gives a canny performance, realizing that in this company she can make her own effect by paring her voice to the barest wisp of tone in "Il faut, de mon destin." Frédéric Antoun's Achille is directly, beautifully sung. On Tauride, Delunsch is acting up a storm, but she too sings with refined expression. "Ô malheureuse Iphigénie" has the purity of an instrumental line, and she brings an apt lightness of tone to Iphigénie's first inklings of a plan in Act III. Jean-François Lapointe, as her brother, Oreste, gives a performance pitched larger than the others, but he never breaks the classical scale.
There is a new perspective on the story when the productions are taken as a whole. Iphigénie, nearly a sacrificial victim on Aulide, nearly must commit a human sacrifice on Tauride. Clytemnestre, whom we now see as a once-decent woman who simply could not bear the horror of events, emerges as a sympathetic character. But the work of Audi and Simon is unsatisfying in other ways. There is, deliberately, no beauty, no sense of place, atmosphere or period, and no dancing. That is a fair point to make about an elemental, harsh story. On the other hand, it is also fair to note that Gluck counted on these things as essential to the operatic experience.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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