It's unclear why Christoph Willibald Gluck—and in particular, his Iphigenia in Tauris—is enjoying a renaissance lately. Perhaps his austere sound is refreshing to modern ears, overstuffed as they are with the compressed soundtrack of noise, news, and catchy pop songs. Gluck wrote Iphigenia (his masterpiece) in an age when opera had been taken to its formulaic extremes, with music alienated from its narrative and embroidered with ostentatious vocal effects. The content was one-dimensional. Stock characters jammed their exposition into dry recitatives before launching into predictable, repetitive poetics.
Gluck broke from that tradition, marrying the word, action, and music. He wrote stark, noble phrases instead of endless scales and trill. With opera stripped of its ornaments, the drama became more direct, and the characters—even the mythical ones—came to life.
What made Gluck revolutionary then makes him risky today. There's a potential for muddying his work if the conductor, director, or singers feel like something has to be added in order to bring it to life. With opera companies scrambling to shuck their stodgy public image, Gluck is not often performed. But director Stephen Wadsworth (of the Ring cycle) is well known for reimagining dense and potentially boring material. He'll also direct Iphigenia at New York's Metropolitan Opera, where a new cast will perform it in December.
The story, based on the Euripides play, concerns the family of Agamemnon in the years following the Trojan War. Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia has been rescued by the goddess Diana from being ritually sacrificed by her father. When the opera begins, she is high priestess of Diana's temple at Tauris, where it's become her job to ritually sacrifice others, specifically strangers. The lives of two shipwrecked Greeks—one of whom, unbeknownst to her, is her brother Orestes—are in her hands.
Thomas Lynch's set evokes an earthier, darker version of the Diana cult than the customary whitewashed Greek columns. Deep red walls with sconces and gilded statuettes enclose a large space offset by a large, black statue of Diana, her bow drawn. Scenic effects, from ex machina descents to ghostly translucent walls, are understated and brief, but affecting.
Wadsworth shows his customary attention to the story, choosing to blend naturalistic details (women of the temple sewing in the background) with stylistic flourishes (an elaborate dialect of supplicating hand gestures). His chorus isn't too stiff—it moves like a normal crowd instead of a procession of accessories—and the frenzied choreography by Daniel Pelzig is appropriately ceremonial and pagan.
But the performances by the principals feel unfocused. Wadsworth's attempt to make Iphigenia, Orestes, and the rest more naturalistic and accessible works against the spirit of the music. Gluck's writing isn't very tuneful or emotional—it's square and blocky, and the performance needs something equally stylized, but more dramatic, to keep the audience's attention. Normally, directors use tools like fancy stage effects (which Gluck didn't like), big dance numbers (which Gluck also eschewed), or striking tableaux. When Maria Callas and her director Visconti worked on Iphigenia, they scoured Tiepolo paintings, looking for evocative poses for Callas to imitate.
Not Wadsworth—his principals either wander about aimlessly or look bizarrely busy. Orestes, who is tortured by Furies, seems less a dramatic mythical figure than a fidgety schizophrenic who wandered in off the street. But baritone Brett Polegato handles the difficult vocal part (written in the precarious upper-middle range) with strength, sometimes oversinging but never shouting. His quiet restraint in "Le calme rentre dans mon coeur" ("Calm enters my heart") was the best singing of the evening. Tenor William Burden's Pylades (the other Greek who washed up with Orestes) gives a focused, cleanly inflected vocal delivery. His economy of physical gesture is also in keeping with Gluck's concept.
Nuccia Focile's Iphigenia was a disappointment. Her tone was closed, driven, and too darkly colored (with distorted, overly round vowels), which made it impossible for her to sing the text clearly or with much dramatic accent or nuance. She and Orestes have the opposite problem—he does too much, she does too little. With the voice and acting so divorced from one another, the title role nearly seems like an afterthought. (And, while we're at it, Phillip Joll as King Thoas was blustery and wildly off-pitch.)
But the chorus and the orchestra are the surprise stars of Iphigenia in Tauris. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow leads a performance at once primitive, passionate, and disciplined. The Seattle Opera Chorus, under Beth Kirchoff's direction, sing intelligently tiered dynamics. These supporting musicians do Gluck the greatest justice, and the music unites the chorus and orchestra into a true ensemble—they hit a sweet spot and the audience is stirred to its feet.