Seattle Opera rediscovers the noble simplicity of Gluck

The magic of Gluck, now undergoing an international revival, comes to Seattle in a largely admirable production of Iphigenie en Tauride. The work is a feast of beauty and a perfectly proportioned masterpiece, so why the strange cuts and additions?
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From left, William Burden as Pylades and Brett Polegato as Orestes in <i>Iphigenie en Tauride</i>. (Bill Mohn)

The magic of Gluck, now undergoing an international revival, comes to Seattle in a largely admirable production of Iphigenie en Tauride. The work is a feast of beauty and a perfectly proportioned masterpiece, so why the strange cuts and additions?

On Saturday, Oct. 13, Seattle Opera presented the premiere of its shared production with the Metropolitan Opera, Christoph Willibald Gluck's masterpiece Iphigenie en Tauride (1779). Thank you, Seattle Opera, for allowing lovers of this profound composer the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Gluck's unique sound world and to experience yet again the raw power of his musical theater.

The opera is rarely performed in America, and when it goes to the Met next month (with a different cast), it will be the first time it's been performed there in many decades. The Seattle production (running through Oct. 27) has many admirable features, though I was baffled by some key decisions that seem unfaithful to Gluck and his librettist. (More about this below.)

Fortunately, we are in the midst of a long overdue international Gluck revival. Productions are popping up everywhere, not only of the later "reform" operas that have earned him his place in the history books but also the earlier works in Italian – comic and serious operas in a more old-fashioned form but full of glorious music. The historical importance of Gluck has never been denied, and his operas meant much more to composers of the 19th century than those of Mozart. Composers as different as Berlioz and Wagner expended much energy in making practical, "updated" versions of Gluck. Berlioz's Orpheus is quite useful and still performed today, but Wagner made a total mess out of Iphigenia in Aulis.

The appropriate term "noble simplicity" became the watchword for Gluck and his disciples and they aimed for a tone which was elevated and at times elemental, with a "less is more" aesthetic. Traditional polyphony is rare, leading to Handel's famous gibe that "Gluck knows no more of counterpoint than my cook."

Late Gluck can be an acquired taste. It has little in common with the Mozart operas that define the late 18th century for most audiences. Gluck's arias are brief and relatively few, vocal display is kept to a bare minimum, as all focus is on the text and the dramaturgy. More importantly, the melodic and harmonic style is very different. The Viennese Classical style, as represented by Mozart, features melodies that immediately strike the ear, due to their regular phrasing and tunes that have their basis in a direct, folk-like idiom and make use of oft-repeated motives. Gluck's are much freer, less dependent on instrumental forms for their structure, and less repetitious.

Since French has no clear stress accent, much French music, from Rameau to Debussy, has a more flowing melodic style that can be elusive to those brought up on German music. How often was Berlioz told that he couldn't write a real melody! In truth, Berlioz is a key figure in appreciating Gluck. Anyone who knows the later composer's music will find that of the earlier quite familiar. Berlioz's Les Troyens is a true distillation of Gluck, and his Cassandra is completely modeled on Iphigenia.

Iphigenie en Tauride is Gluck's penultimate opera and his last great success. Like most of his later works, it uses whole hunks of music from earlier operas, but it nonetheless feels totally unified and is, in my opinion, his crowning achievement. It is a must for anyone with an interest in the marriage of music and theater, and a feast of beauty.

On the musical side, much praise goes to conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who has a keen sense of style and got the band to play with sweetness, clarity, and a minimum of vibrato. The lyrical elements were beautifully shaped. In the more dramatic passages (the opening storm, the Furies, the Scythian music, etc.) I felt a lack of rhythmic emphasis and an overall underplaying which made for a too genteel sound. This is, after all, an opera about the strongest passions of Greek tragedy: rage, fear, and despair.

Also first-rate were the hero Orestes (Brett Polegato) and his faithful companion Pylades (William Burden). In their scenes together, the music-making came closest to Gluck's language. The chorus was excellent and Michèle Losier was a superb Diana. Nuccia Focile, a Sicilian soprano in the title role, performed with sincerity and commitment, winning the audience over with a portrait of a vulnerable Iphigenia, if not a larger-than-life member of the House of Atreus. But she was simply miscast. This is a role for a dramatic mezzo who can dominate the stage with presence and vocal amplitude. While many sopranos attempt the role, few succeed. There was no way for Focile to project the many low passages or to suggest the indomitable character of Iphigenia. Her persistent vibrato had little to do with the overall style of the performance. As for the sinister King Thoas of Phillip Joll, only one word comes to mind: Why?

That word also applies to the disfiguring cuts and additions imposed upon a perfect original, changes that seriously damage the opera in several key places. Most alarming was the end of Act 2. After the G minor chorus, "Patrie infortunee" and the glorious aria O malherueuse Iphigenie in G Major, there should follow a brief recitative in which Iphigenia proposes a funeral procession for the supposedly dead Orestes. After this the act ends in a heavenly C Major aria with chorus, Contemplez ces tristes apprets, a gentle catharsis. But here, after the G Major aria, the chorus gloomily reprised its little G minor piece and the curtain fell in the darkness of the minor tonality, in total disregard of the wishes of composer and librettist and in conflict with the aesthetics of the late 18th century. No procession and final aria. Why? The opera is about 105 minutes of music and is quite perfectly proportioned. No cuts are needed.

Another example: At the very end of the opera, after the stirring final chorus, just as I was ready to stand and applaud, I was gobsmacked to find out that two short instrumental pieces had been added. The first was a reprise of the soft start of the prelude, accompanying a strange pantomime by Orestes and Iphigenia, and then a few loud snippets of a chaconne from another Gluck opera, Iphigenie en Aulide, if my memory serves me well, with Scythian percussion added. Once again, I wondered, why?

Stephen Wadsworth was the stage director. This is one of his best efforts in Seattle, and there are countless details that exalt the total experience. The opening pantomime worked quite well, and the divided stage area is used to great effect. Wadsworth's penchant for continuous movement is always in evidence, at times enlightening and at times distracting attention from what should be the main focus, the singers, and the drama. If "noble simplicity" and direct realism is Gluck's aim, Wadsworth's extreme artifice is something quite different.

There were some puzzling decisions in the staging. The only ensemble in the opera, the dramatic trio in which Iphigenia tries to decide whether Orestes or Pylades should be the one to be sacrified, finds the singers in a surprisingly informal position, crammed together on a small, bench-like structure, for all the world as if they were waiting for a bus to Northgate. At one point, Orestes even put his head in the lap of the High Priestess! At any rate, this staging was not dull.

Thomas Lynch's set was impressively gloomy and powerful, creating an atmosphere of horror and claustrophobia, aided by the lighting design and the drab costumes. Stage left was dominated by a gigantic statue of Diana, as described in the text, which for some reason had its back to the sacrificial pyre. If the Scythians were dumb enough to sacrifice people to Diana's backside, they could hardly be surprised when she shows up at the end of the opera to demand the return of her statue to Greece! The goddess descended quite nicely but seemed to have only a one-way ticket. In contrast to the demands of the libretto, she remained onstage for the last few minutes, looking rather daunted by the hyperactive humanoids surrounding her.

These criticisms aside, let me repeat my earlier plea to go see this powerful work in an eye-catching performance. It is a great opportunity and a rare experience. Again, thank you, Seattle Opera!


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