FIRST WORD REVIEW: The Met’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”

Neh neh neh neh neh neh! Guess who got to attend the opening night of The Metropolitan Opera’s latest “new” production? That’s right, boys and girls! But you know we work for it over here. So we’re bringing you our FIRST WORD REVIEW, that is, a review that comes out when a review should come out: the next morning. No two-day delay. We’re talking a 7am stint at the old PC in order to bring you our unadulterated opinion. You know you like it.

Opera Review: Iphigenie en Tauride at The Met

(Photos by Ken Howard)

iphigenie_scene_fly.jpgThe Met’s latest new production, a complicated setting of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride that debuted last night, opened in silence. Well, silence and then a nap-jerk grunt from Susan Graham who lay face down on the mosaic floor of what appears to be a cross section of the Temple of Diana. Then, still in silence, a lithe woman is lowered by a cable from the rafters and snatches up another young woman who, lying on a giant sacrificial altar, had just had a dagger thrust through her chest. The two of them fly up to the heavens, and the music begins.

The Metropolitan Opera has tried somewhat desperately to boast the slew of new productions they’re offering this season, although the results have been rather mixed. Lucia suffered from an over-hyped Natalie Dessay who delivered more ham than shine, and Macbeth failed to achieve any coherence between sets, costumes, and musical performances: very anti-gesamtkunstwerk. But with Iphigenie, directed by Stephen Wadsworth, they may finally have something they don’t need to feel ashamed about.

First of all, the cast could hardly be better (except for one, whom I shall take to task in just a minte). Let’s just say, it’s hard to go wrong with Susan Graham and Placido Domingo as your moguls.

Graham delivered. Her impassioned performance was committed from the heart. As the lost Iphigenie–who, according to Gluck and Nicolas-Francois Guillard’s crazy supposition, had been snatched from death by Diana when Agamemnon had tried to kill his daughter to appease the gods (in most accounts (don’t make us bring up Chuck Mee), he does kill Iphigenie, and then that part of the House of Atreus story ends) and has lived in captivity in a grotto in Tauris (or Crimea) for fifteen years–Graham is constantly gripping. Her voice was agile, floating high pianissimos, then dropping down and belting from the middle, and retained a uniformity of timber that a real professional will have; that is to say, you recognize them from their top notes to the cellar (unlike some other hack that I have mentioned already).

graham_as_iphigenie_wall.jpgYou could argue that maybe she was a little one-note in terms of emotional dynamics. But that can be mostly attributed to Wadsworth’s insistence on having all the characters on stage almost the entire time. He’s set them into Thomas Lynch’s cavernous, yet claustrophobic set, like little dolls in a diorama. While, for instance, Oreste and Pylades are tied to the altar in the main portion of the temple (set in lovely red, orange and gold hues), a chorus of women sit doing some kind of needlepoint in a narrow chamber (washed with pale blues, purples and greens) off to the left…you know, just hangin’ out. (Even further to the left is an elevated area that suggests the outer wall of the temple; you can even see a tiny swath of blue sky.) So Ms. Graham had probably twice as much stage time to fill, which she mostly spent fretting and throwing herself against the enormous wall that divides the sanctuary from the prison chamber. But when singing, she is irresistable to watch and listen to. Her lament, “O malheureuse Iphigenie” that closes Act II, was captivating, and Wadsworth plays out the bizarre little post-lude Gluck writes for the orchestra, leaving Iphigenie and Oreste looking warily at each other: the opera ends much the same way, only the two siblings are hugging.

Domingo, pushing 70 now, is still a rock star. He has the energy of a thirty year old and the voice of a legend. Let me tell you, the character Oreste has legs, and Domingo kept pace with the excited music. Although, nothing in Gluck’s magical score gave that spinning voice a chance to really sail. Still, he’s seasoned (to say the least) and very at home on the stage. In “La calme rentre dans mon coeur,” a strange quasi-aria meant to evoke a dream of Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon (here, extrapolated and staged for us), Domingo’s voice rises slow and steady while an oddly modern syncopated ostinato plugs away in the strings.

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Totally holding his own was tenor Paul Groves in the role of Plyades, Oreste’s BFF and fellow captive. The grain of Groves’ voice cuts through even the most delicate Gluckian arias in a way that delivered emotional sincerity and vocal virtuosity. He was on fire.

And how awesome was it to hear Lisette Oropesa (from this season’s Marriage of Figaro) chime in as the “First Priestess”, a minuscule role compared to “Susana.” I actually really love her voice, and I can’t wait to see her career blossom, but, come on girl: at least try to work on your diction and pronunciation. Although, who knows, maybe that subtle twang will work out to be her calling card, like Cindy Crawford’s mole, or Madonna’s tooth gap.

But William Shimell as Thoas, the angry Scythian King who is keeping everyone captive, was a glaring piece of shit on what was otherwise a kick-ass night of singing. Again, I don’t know how these people get cast. His voice really was not up to snuff. It sounded as if there was some kind of mute lodged up his nasal cavity. He mostly barked and woofed, and I would have giving ten bucks for every pitch he actually managed to hit. Blech. Take him away!

The choruses sounded well, however. The women’s chorus, and there’s some marvelous writing for them, was unified and lyrical. There is an amazing moment when they join Iphigenie on a held high note (G? A-flat? Our pitch is relative, to say the least…), and it sounds as if the spirit of Iphigenie has suddenly swollen to fill the entire opera house.

The men’s chorus got to sing all the “Turkish” flavored music, set to all kinds of cymbals, drums and chimes. Often it sounded more like Glinka than Gluck.

I wish I could say that Louis Langree had a better debut with the Met orchestra, but, Elas, not so much. I mean, he got the job done, but there were frequent lapses in time keeping between the singers and the pit, and some of the textures just rang thin.

But the production, overall, is surprisingly attractive. The sets, though cumbersome, at least attempts something daring with its odd feng-shui and hidden compartments (although, my inner proletariate always gets a little perturbed when I can tell a director has created the work from the best seats in the house: woe to anyone sitting outside of center…).

The lighting, by Neil Peter Jampolis, is deftly sophisticated with its soft, spectral shifts that compliment the sets and the costumes (by Martin Pakledinaz), particularly those of the women’s chorus, whose furling skirts and head scraves appear to have been dipped in the honey of a Crimean sunset.

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And, lo and behold, Daniel Pelzig, as the choreographer, actually had something to do! He sets whirling turns (like the Dervishes) and ritualistic arm gestures throughout the women’s ensemble, seamlessly mixing in the dancers with the singers. He created a similar affect with the men’s chorus, although the boys got to clap, kick and jump around. Ehhh, you could argue that it was a little too much, at times, but I’m going to go ahead and give it props for at least trying to be something hot, rather than so many operatic gestures that come out half-baked and impenetrably resigned. This production goes for broke, and reaps rewards.

“Iphigenie en Tauride” runs at The Met various nights through December 22.

5 Comments

  1. [...] The Morning After So it’s a day after our coup de review. I could only find two other reviews The Met’s Iphigenie en Tauride this A.M. (Feel free to [...]

  2. Well you can’t please everyone all the time, but thanks for spelling my name right. I’ll listen to the tape, and see if you owe $10 .. or more… bill shimell

  3. Yo yo, Bill-

    First of all, we give props to anyone who’ll leave a comment after we’ve harshed on ‘em. So, props to you, buddy.

    And you’re right. You can’t please everybody. (Nor can we, as much as we try.) But look on the bright side. You totally got good marks from most of the other critics out there.

    Also, tense is very important. So, “would have given ten bucks” does not mean “will now give ten bucks,” so don’t worry about sending us any invoices.

    Thanks for being a good sport!

    xoxoC.C.

  4. Did not see the show on opening night, but on 11-Dec. Disagree with you almost completely. Other than Placido Domingo the entire production was nothing but mediocre at best. William Shimel was not good but nearly as bad as you made him out to be, but I would rather listen to him that Susan Graham. I have no idea what all the reviewers see in her. Her diction was awful and muddy…she could have been signing in Pig Latin for all one could hear. And her emotional range…let’s just say that Keanu Reeves has a wider emotional range. And the dancing…frig…what a mess…

  5. Thanks for writing in, Sherv!

    Yeah, I don’t know. I just really like her voice. It’s ginormous and pretty agile, from what I remember. And I think most divas usually get a bye on the whole diction thing.

    As far as Bill Shim VS Graham. I actually felt sorry for her every time she had to have a scene with him. It was like, beauty and the beast, but without the happy ending.


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