Classical, Early Music, Opera
Pinchgut Live PG006
Reviewed by Alistair Noble, April 1st, 2016
“A beautiful Australian revival of Gluck’s great revolutionary opera.”
Quite a number of the very important musical masterpieces of the 18th century are not part of the canon of commonly performed works today. One of the greatest of all such neglected works is Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, first performed in Paris in 1779. The opera was hailed as a masterpiece immediately, and even Gluck’s professional competitors recognised the great importance of the work in successfully embodying a much-needed reformist agenda. Gluck argued passionately for radical changes to the way opera was conceived and performed, wishing to dispense with artificial conventions and refresh the original classicist aims of the art form. He worked to unify text and music, to create music that would propel the drama forward in a sweeping arc, to avoid interruptions like ballets or virtuosic arias holding up the action, and to make full use of the potential of voices and orchestra to colour the characters and events on stage, often with great subtlety. The revolutionary impact of Iphigénie en Tauride was enormous, not only in Gluck’s own time, but even through the 19th century—Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss (among many others) all acknowledged his lasting influence.
In 2014, Pinchgut Opera presented Iphigénie en Tauride in Sydney, in an effective staging directed by Lindy Hume. Now, listeners may enjoy the work on CD in a live recording of the production, pieced together seamlessly from the highlights of recordings made over four nights of the season. Having seen the stage production, I was struck by how deeply absorbing the CD recording is, as a purely audio musical experience. This is surely a testament not only to the convincing power of Gluck’s musical drama but also to the quality of the performances of soloists, orchestra and chorus. The recording quality is also very fine, and for the most part one even forgets that this is a live-performance recording.
Right from the start, Gluck lets us know that we are facing a new paradigm. The opera begins with a courtly dance, instead of an overture—but this is quickly interrupted by a great orchestral storm (depicting a storm over the sea) over which Iphigénie herself sings a prayer to the gods, asking that they calm the thunder and lightning. Not only is this a radical departure from the usual manner of beginning an opera in musical and dramatic terms, it was also (in 1779) charged with political tension. The classical drama that plays out hereafter is framed to some extent by two funereal events: one, at the end of Act 2, is an actual funeral ceremony enacted by Iphigénie and her Greek priestesses in honour of her brother Orestes, who they believe to be dead. The other is a more sinister ceremony in which they prepare to make a human sacrifice of Orestes himself, who they have failed to recognise. In both of these scenes, the music for Iphigénie and the chorus of priestesses is magical—performed here with great dignity and magisterial pathos by soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and the women of the excellent choir Cantillation.
Alongside such moments of remarkable music and moving performance, one of the most effective aspects of character-depiction is found in the deep friendship between Orestes and his fellow refugee Pylade. Such is their regard for one another that they are each willing to be sacrificed in order for the other to be saved. Fortunately, (spoiler alert) this turns out to be unnecessary, but the unfolding of the drama allows ample time for Gluck to develop these characters and their relationship convincingly. Grant Doyle (as Orestes) brings a darkly humane manner to this role, and a voice capable of richly subtle colouring that is particularly effective in suggesting the shifting inner thoughts and feelings of the character.
In many ways, the opera stands or falls on the character of Iphigénie. The part was written for Rosalie Levasseur, one of the great Parisian sopranos of the 1770s, renowned for the presence of her acting as much as her singing. Here, Caitlin Hulcup certainly fills Levasseur’s shoes well. Her voice is powerfully dramatic, conveying the strength of personality that is vital for the role, along with a capacity for rendering the more sensitive, luminously lyrical moments with classical grace. This is a performance to savour, with great depths that reward repeated listening.
As important as the singers in Gluck’s radical operas, the orchestra carries the drama forward with almost uninterrupted music. Gluck’s orchestration was very modern for his time, one might even say experimental, and he uses the orchestra to suggest subtexts to the stage action and also reveal the unspoken emotions of characters. In this performance, the Orchestra of the Antipodes plays wonderfully well, with a huge range of dramatic colours and a fine sensitivity to the style. Much of this, no doubt, is a credit to conductor Antony Walker, working with the very fine continuo player Erin Helyard and orchestra leader Brendan Joyce.
In the end, despite the best efforts of all the characters to do what they think right, the conflict between two cultures (Greek and Scythian) on stage spirals into disaster and violent chaos. This is only resolved by the rather quaint device of the deus ex machina—in this case, the goddess Diana (splendidly played by Margaret Plummer) wafts down on a cloud and tells everyone to cut it out and behave (or else), thus allowing a reprieve from human-led disaster at least long enough to bring the curtain down on a more-or-less happy ending. In many ways this seems amusingly contrived—and yet I suspect we should not laugh too soon. When one thinks of the state of our own contemporary world, in which things generally seem to accelerate towards catastrophe, perhaps the hope for a divine intervention is not so misplaced; more desperate than amusing. Here, I sense, we may find a profound contemporary relevance in Gluck’s masterpiece: no doubt many felt then, as we might now, that the gods had forsaken them. Gluck’s original audience was no more naïve than we are, and for us as for them the opera provides much to delight as well as serious food for thought.