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Gluck's opera Iphigénie en Aulide is a more mature piece than his,
better known, Orphée et Eurydice. Written in 1774, it has in place all
the elements that we will later recognise in 19th century opera: solos,
ensembles and choruses, arias, arioso and recitative and a judicious
injection of ballet when the action is flagging. The characters have a
psychological complexity; in fact, one could criticise this opera for
having too much psychology and not enough action. The theme is a
familiar one, both biblically and mythologically: Agamemnon has to
placate the Goddess Diana by sacrificing his daughter Iphigénie.
This 2002 La Scala production comes from the period when the company was temporarily housed at the Archimboldo in Milan. Some of the productions from this new venue were quite spectacular and this Iphigénie is no exception. I particularly liked the way the gods brood over the stage. At the beginning there are just a couple of them in the background but, by the climax, the entire action is hemmed in by a circle of towering gods.
Although this production looks good it is let down by its leading performances. Violeta Urmana is an uninspiring Iphigénia, The baritone Christopher Robertson as Agamemnon seems uncomfortable at the higher end of his range and, to my ears, the tenor Stephen Mark Brown as Achilles is painful to listen to. More successful is Daniela Barcellona as Clitemnestra, the mother of Iphigénie, this despite the fact that she is wearing the worst operatic wig that I have seen this century.
In a melodramatic story, the production does not seem to have got over how to present the drama. It does not need gimmicks or modernisation; it needs a stylised presentation but without the excess of operatic arm-waving that we get in this production. One reason why the drama does not grip is that we all know that the Goddess will descend in her chariot at the end, sort everyone out and they will live happily ever after. I suppose it's the ancient Greek equivalent of winning the lottery. In a hard life, one's only chance of happiness is the deus ex machina.
Iphigenie En Aulide does deserve to be better known. Maybe Orfeo Ed Euridice and Iphigenie En Tauride are superior operas, but Iphigenie En Aulide has wonderful music, that is very characteristically Gluck, and complex story and characters. This 2002 La Scala performance is good but it is far from perfect. The two main problems are the ridiculous wigs- some of the worst I've ever seen actually- of the ladies in the chorus(Daniela Barcellona also applies here) and Stephen Mark Brown's Achille who constantly sounds pushed and unmusical and dramatically he is very stolid. Christopher Robertson is nowhere near as bad, I do think he is a convincing actor and he has a sonorous middle and bottom. The problem was his top which sounded strained and almost as if he was trying to bark out the notes. However, it is a visually beautiful production and is movingly staged. The orchestral playing is very musical and elegant, and Riccardo Muti's conducting shows a fine sense of line and an understanding for Gluck's style without being as rigid or uptight about interpolated notes and things like that like he can be. The chorus sing wonderfully. I thought most of the performances were good. Violeta Urmana does have a lovely sound to her voice and uses it very intelligently. Is she the most interesting actress ever? No, but she is at least involved in the drama, in the way Brown is not. Genia Kuhmier is a poignant Diane and the Calcante of Ildar Abdrazakov is commanding, but it is Daniela Barcellona's firmly sung and riveting Clittenestra that carries the day. In conclusion, a good but not great production. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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