Washington National Opera rediscovers Gluck

Forgotten operatic masterpiece debuts at Kennedy Center. Domingo, Racette star in remarkable revival. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON — (May 8, 2011) – The Washington National Opera’s all-too-brief season got back into gear this weekend past with something really special—the company’s first-ever performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphigenia in Tauris). Who’s that, you say? Gluck? Opera fanatics know about this composer, at least from opera history. But even these aficionados rarely get the opportunity to hear one of his operas today.

That problem, however, is being remedied with WNO’s current performances. And it the novelty isn’t enough to catch your attention, well, how about WNO’s cast? This production of Iphigénie boasts the tremendously talented soprano Patricia Racette in the title role and none other than Plácido Domingo, WNO’s outgoing general director, as Iphigénie’s haunted brother Oreste (Orestes).

Patricia Racette and Placido Domingo.

No way out for Iphigenie (Patricia Racette)
and Oreste (Placido Domingo).
(Credit for photos: Scott Suchman.)

Gluck (1714-1787) is the composer who, arguably, provides the missing link between baroque opera and the more dramatic and musically sophisticated operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although others had experimented with the notion, it was Gluck who decided that baroque opera was, at least from a dramatic standpoint, pretty boring and needed some serious updating.

Baroque operas, particularly those of Handel, remain with us today mainly because of their exquisite scores and marvelous opportunities for skilled singers to put on a dazzling demonstration of vocal pyrotechnics. But as drama, such opera leave much to be desired.

Based on familiar characters, often from Greek mythology, baroque operas frequently seem more like secular oratorios in costume. Elemental plots are cast as a series of party pieces for the soloists, stitched together by a prosaic prose narrative or recitatif, accompanied by continuo (usually harpsichord) that serves to move the story on to the next aria. Characters are wooden, two-dimensional really. But it was setting rather than dramatic action that provided the context. Audiences were there, after all, for the singers, so the rest scarcely seemed to matter.

But things change. Audiences love the old familiar things, but younger audience members tend to crave novelty, and the baroque model of opera eventually began to wear thin. Enter Gluck. Although he had some company along the way, it was primarily Gluck who decided that opera wasn’t exciting or innovative enough. Even though he, too, tended to use mythological characters in his better-known operas, he added several key elements to the genre to increase tension, excitement, character, and drama.

While it might seem hard to believe in our ongoing age of artistic realism, this was all incredibly controversial in its time. Nonetheless, Gluck gradually “sold” his concept to sophisticated opera audiences, and his innovations were eagerly studied, imitated, and exceeded by his successors—particularly and perhaps surprisingly by revolutionary figures such as Berlioz and Wagner who held Gluck’s operas in very high esteem.

It was Gluck who pushed the notion that the instrumental music playing underneath the vocal line could portray the psychological workings of a character, which often were at odds with his external actions. That concept is particularly noticeable in Iphigénie during Oreste’s vocal monologue in which he convinces himself he’s at peace. But the turbulent instrumental figure that accompanies him indicates he’s kidding himself, as he’s actually knotted up with internal conflict and turmoil. Wagner, in particular, was impressed with the use of the orchestra as a part of character, a technique he later perfected in his own masterpiece, the Ring Cycle.

An additional Gluck innovation readily apparent in Iphigénie is the lack of an overture. After just a few bars, we’re thrust right into the action as a powerful storm lashes Iphigénie’s lonely isle. It’s a new way of realizing another ancient Greek literary concept, the notion of beginning a story in medias res—literally, “in the middle of things”—rather than adopting a less-exciting linear narrative form.

Yet another modernization is Gluck’s avoidance of old-style recitatif. Yes, there are short, narrative bridges in this opera. But they’re blessedly short and accompanied by the whole orchestra, integrating them more thoroughly into the action and into the development of each character.

Racette, Domingo, Yang, Mesko.

Iphigenie (Patricia Racette) and priestesses
(Yegyung Yang and Sarah Mesko) prepare 
to sacrifice Pylade (Shawn Mathey)
and Oreste (Placido Domingo).

Gluck’s opera, particularly his later works, remained quite popular in Europe throughout the 19th century. But he was gradually forgotten in the 20th, displaced by exciting new contemporary works as will often happen to the best of classical and pop composers alike. Yet several of Gluck’s operas are genuine masterpieces, loaded with all the right stuff. So not surprisingly, at least two of his operas have begun to win favor with the public once again. Iphigénie’s current revival can probably be dated to the Met’s own revival production mounted in 2007.

WNO’s marvelous production of this opera is now ensconced at the Kennedy Center Opera House for a short run of eight performances in total. The production’s costuming and sets from Spain’s Ópera de Oviedo, are, alas, mostly of the black, white, and greyscale persuasion that seems a particular and endless obsession with the Europeans these days.

Fortunately, with a terrific cast and a crisp, nuanced, determined performance by the WNO Orchestra under the baton of William Lacey, the music and the singing in this production transform this production of Gluck’s forgotten masterpiece into a genuine must-see event.

First staged in Paris in 1779 (its original libretto is in French), Iphigénie boasts a lush, beautiful, classical-era score. Mozart fans will be utterly charmed at the similarities of style and approach. Gluck’s music resembles that of the younger master with just an occasional faint dash of Handelian sensibility tossed in. While the harmonies are not quite as innovative as Mozart’s they are indeed often quite inventive and serve to set the mood and the tone of each scene with great effectiveness.

As we’ve already indicated, Patricia Racette is simply a wonder as Iphigénie. She holds her own in the taxing, storm-tossed, opening scene, bewailing the violence of the storm and its similarity to her own sad fate. Gluck’s vocal lines are not loaded with ornamentation. In fact, they anticipate in some ways the bel canto style that was to become popular in the earlier part of the 19th century, supporting as they do, the kind of fluid, emotional style of vocal expression for which Ms. Racette is justly acclaimed.

Ms. Racette benefits, of course, from the presence of Plácido Domingo as the greatly tormented Oreste. Throughout most of the opera, neither Iphigénie nor Oreste recognize one another even though they are brother and sister. Further, Iphigénie, now a priestess, has been ordered by the evil Scythian king Thoas to sacrifice the shipwrecked Oreste and his companion Pylade to the gods, all of which precludes any romantic relationship. Nonetheless, both characters sense some kind of fateful bond, and their moments together are filled with musical pathos and heroism, the kind of sung role Mr. Domingo performs best.

Interestingly, while Gluck originally wrote the role of Oreste for a tenor, he rescored it for the baritone voice in a later German production. It’s that range that Mr. Domingo takes on here, and, as he has in the past, he is proving to be as immensely talented as a baritone as he always has been as a tenor. He remains, truly, one of the vocal wonders of the world.

The actual tenor role here is sung by a youthful Shawn Mathey who already displays a remarkable skill and a hefty dramatic voice that held its own quite beautifully along with this production’s two marquee names. Very impressive indeed, and it would be good to see Mr. Mathey in a larger role in an upcoming WNO season.

In the smaller but important role of the bristling, demonic Thoas, Operalia winner, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini more than made his commanding presence felt. Supporting cast members Jegyung Yang, Sarah Mesko, Javier Arrey, Matthew Osifchin, and Jennifer Lynn Waters—largely drawn from the young singers in WHO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program—were also at the top of their game.

All in all, this is an immensely satisfying production of a terrific opera that shouldn’t have remained hidden from view for as long as it has. As is so often the case these days, audiences tend not to buy tickets for operas they’re not familiar with. But we’d highly advise taking a chance on this production of Iphigénie. If you’re a big fan of Mozart, you just might end up adding Christoph Willibald Gluck to your list of opera favorites.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars.) 

For tickets and information, visit the Washington National Opera website.

Read more of Terry’s work at Curtain Up! in the EntertainUs neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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