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2007.10.20 CD Review:building a library Iphigénie en Tauride

BBC Radio 3 “CD Review: Building a library”

Iphigénie en Tauride

20 October 2007

Reviewed by Simon Heighes

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Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride is one of those operas whose praises are more frequently sung than the opera itself. Gluck always gets plenty of praise for the success of his operatic reforms which reach their pinnacle here, but when it comes to actually performing the opera, the singers have often seemed strangely reluctant. Which may just have something to do with Gluck’s determination to put the drama before anything else, including the arias. What Gluck created in Iphigenie en Tauride was a powerful psychological thriller with fast paced action and vividly drawn characters. Its central themes of isolation, paranoia and hope are powerfully projected and remain as compelling today as they were at the opera’s premiere in Paris in 1779. Operatically speaking, Gluck slots into that mysterious gap between Handel and Mozart, which is a tricky place to be, though not quite as tricky as the place Iphigenia finds herself. The goddess Diana has just saved her from a sacrificial death at the hands of her father, Agamemnon, and has organised a last minute relocation package to the island of Tauride, home to the barbaric Scythians. Gluck gets the ball rolling immediately and in full reform mode dispenses with an overture and plunges straight into the action with a thrilling orchestral storm scene.

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All the guttiness and spittiness of original instruments adding to the ferocity of the squall theme there in Marc Minkowski’s 1999 performance with Les Musiciens du Louvre. It’s one of only two versions of Iphigenie en Tauride on period instruments, always a little risky in a live recording. But there’s been a lot of risk taking with this opera. Of the nine versions currently available, no fewer than six were actually recorded live, and to great effect. Gluck’s swiftly flowing drama really seems to benefit from all the sweep and energy of live theatre, so as the storm continues to rage, Iphigenia, high priestess of Diana, prays to her protectoress to keep her safe.

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American soprano, Christine Goerke, leading her chorus of priestesses with a generous tone, and expertly accompanied by Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. The first period instrument band to record the opera back in 1999. Although period instruments are more usually John Eliot Gardiner’s territory, he made his recording with the modern forces of Lyon Opera in 1985. In the title role Diana Montague, splendidly capable in her middle register but less comfortable at the top.

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Gloriously assured singing from the Monteverdi Choir but Diana Montague’s Iphigenia really can’t compare with the steely grandeur of a soprano like this…

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The unmistakeable Maria Callas singing in Italian live at La Scala, Milan. She’s a moody, mesmerising Iphigenia but sadly too poorly recorded for serious consideration today. Even so it’s fascinating to hear just how radically performing styles have moved on since that recording was made half a century ago in 1957. The same year in fact as the launch of the original Record Review which at that time certainly never contemplated building a library with a rarity like Iphigenie en Tauride. How times have changed. Which is probably what people said at the first performance because Gluck himself was certainly ringing the changes. If he’d had a motto it would probably have gone something like “Never write an aria without a reason, never write an aria which doesn’t push the action forward, and never write an aria if a chorus, ballet, ensemble or recitative would do better”.

In this next scene, Gluck’s brand of highly melodic recitative succeeds much better than an aria at capturing every nuance of Iphigenia’s rapidly shifting emotions. The storm outside may have died away but for Iphigenia there’s still a storm raging in her heart. She recounts a nightmare in which she saw her father murdered by her mother, her mother murdered by her brother and her brother murdered by her own hand.

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Gluck’s recitative, the backbone of the opera, full of melodic interest, sometimes speechlike, sometimes dominated by grand gestures, but always accompanied by the orchestra. And, as Christine Goerke and Boston Baroque have just demonstrated, extremely demanding to coordinate.

Well, Iphigenia is not the only character tormented by paranoid forebodings. Let’s meet Thoas the barbarian king of the Scythians, and the villain of the piece. Here’s the moment in the first Act where he’s overcome with terror that the Gods have really got it in for him.

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Interesting casting, that was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bringing some much needed subtlety to Lamberto Gardelli’s rather lumpen performance of 1982. In Fischer-Dieskau’s hands, Thoas gains a bit of psychological depth. He may be a barbarian but even barbarians are allowed to feel vulnerable and frightened occasionally. Too many singers though skate over this and simply shout their way through the aria with more might than insight.

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Ivor Bolton’s live recording from the Salzburg Festival in 2000 with Philippe Rouillon as a rather brutal Thoas. But there’s really so much more to say, especially if the orchestra doesn’t just hammer away but really tries to bring out the menace of Gluck’s string writing. Here’s the menacing Marc Minkowski in the second half of the aria with the excellent Laurent Naouri who avoids all the clichés of a caricature baddie and genuinely sounds anxious.

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Thoas is in luck. After the storm his people, tambourines in hand, find two shipwrecked Greeks on their shores. Exactly what he needs, a couple of bodies who can be sacrificed to get the Gods off of his back. Thoas instructs the high priestess Iphigenia to prepare the executions, but as the curtain goes up on Act 2 we discover that the two castaways are none other than Iphigenia’s brother Orestes and his loyal friend Pylades.

Chained up in a dungeon, Orestes is overcome with remorse, he killed his mother and now he’s responsible for the death of his best friend. The heightened emotionalism of Gluck’s music here is all too easy to exaggerate, but Thomas Allen for John Eliot Gardiner finds just the right tone.

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Thomas Allen, an Orestes with dignity and gravitas for John Eliot Gardiner. But I can’t say the same for Thomas Hampson in Ivor Bolton’s recording, who just can’t resist playing to the gallery.

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Thomas Hampson for Ivor Bolton. There’s another side to Orestes and singers need to delve into this inner world and read between the lines. In the middle of Act 2, Orestes and Pylades are separated – their worst nightmare. As Pylades is dragged away the exhausted Orestes is overcome by a strange sense of calm. The American baritone Rodney Gilfry plays this rather effectively as if in a state of shock, whereas most other performers simply sing softly and allow their voices to rise and fall with emotion, Gilfry is almost in an altered state, his voice unnaturally still and controlled, a difficult mood to sustain in a live stage performance.

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Rodney Gilfry, shaken but not stirred, and he’s one of the most human and convincing Orestes, appearing on two recordings, live on DVD with Zurich Opera under William Christie which we’ve just heard, and a more studio bound recording with Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. One of the irritations of the Zurich Opera DVD is that Gilfry is constantly shadowed on stage by an alter ego who acts out his inner thoughts – completely unnecessary really because it’s all there in the music. Orestes may say he’s completely calm about his predicament but that’s not the message we get from the quietly agitated violas who niggle away undermining his reassurances. Marc Minkowski brings this off very subtly on period instruments, and Simon Keenlyside makes the most of the stage direction to surrender to sleep.

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As Orestes sleeps, the Euménides – the Furies – taunt him in one of Gluck’s dramatic ballets. The snarling brass, the percussive string writing, are best heard on period instruments, and Marc Minkowski and the Musiciens du Louvre as we’ve heard are always open to all the colours and gestures of Gluck’s atmospheric orchestral writing. After the Furies have left, Orestes and Iphigenia meet alone, though they still don’t recognise each other as brother and sister. Orestes tells her the terrible news that her family, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes are all dead. Iphigenia is moved to sing a magnificent lament, though I don’t think this performance would win her much sympathy.

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Not really my idea of a young virgin priestess who I’m sure would sing with much greater purity and much less vibrato and show greater respect for the curvature of the melodic line. That was the Spanish soprano, Pilar Lorengar, Lamberto Gardelli’s leading lady. Marilyn Horne is another of the heavyweight Iphigenias, but her greatest handicap is an orchestra with no sense of style whatever.

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Marilyn Horne live at Turin Opera in 1974. Her Iphigenia is badly let down by the orchestra and recording engineer but she remains undaunted and staunchly passionate.

French soprano Mireille Delunsch sees the aria much less as an outpouring of grief and more as a contemplative soliloquy, and in this she seems much more in tune with the music itself. If Rameau or Handel had written this aria it surely would have been bristling with awe-inspiring technical difficulties, but when the going gets tough for one of Gluck’s characters he usually resorts to a song of disarming simplicity, something which Mireille Delunsch and Marc Minkowski audibly understand.

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Turning all the grief inwards Mireille Delunsch, the most insightful of the Iphigenias.

Things only get more difficult for her at the start of Act 3. Instead of executing both prisoners she magnanimously decides to let Orestes go, but this being an opera she gets precious little thanks. Instead, Orestes insists that he’s the one that has to die, and with increasing desperation he tries to convince Pylades to change places with him. It’s the ideal moment for a duet.

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A pretty even-handed argument between Thomas Hampson as Oreste and Paul Groves as Pylades in Ivor Bolton’s recording. But listen again this time to Rodney Gilfry and Vinson Cole, and this time things don’t seem quite so evenly matched. Doesn’t Pylades realise this is a matter of life and death? Doesn’t sound like it.

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Vinson Cole, not the most persuasive Pylades. We’ll return to Pearlman’s recording again in a moment but first back to Bolton and the climax of this scene where Thomas Hampson, desperate to die really starts to ham it up.

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No one could write highly charged recitative quite like Gluck. Just a few reservations about this performance though – too stagey, too much stage noise but too little orchestral discipline and detail, all remedied in this performance…

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John Eliot Gardiner directing the most carefully considered and satisfying of modern instrument performances.

The plot now thickens: Orestes finally convinces Pylades to let him die, but just before he gets the chop, brother and sister finally recognise one another which delights everyone except Thoas who tries to execute them both on the spot. Gluck keeps his head though and writes a frenetic scene, and not an aria in sight

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Martin Pearlman keeping the action very taught and measured, but I wonder whether it isn’t just a little too controlled. In contrast, Marc Minkowski and his French forces really allow themselves to bend to the will of the drama.

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Stirring stuff from Marc Minkowski, and the scene continues with the timely arrival of Pylades who kills Thoas and heroically saves Orestes and Iphigenia. Gluck for his part generates the clinching climax by pitting three choruses against each other: Thoas’s royal guards, Iphigenia’s priestesses and Pylades band of loyal Greeks.

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The Monteverdi Choir split three ways but absolutely unanimous in their rhythmic precision and flawless diction. Even so I find myself irresistibly drawn to the greater immediacy and swirling excitement of Marc Minkowski’s  performance.

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The goddess Diana finally bringing things to order. Orestes then introduces Pylades to his sister Iphigenia in a fleeting final aria which needs very careful handling.

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A private moment or a public statement? Rodney Gilfry in Martin Pearlman’s recording. For Marc Minkowski, Simon Keenlyside really gets to the core of this aria. It isn’t just an opportunity to introduce Pylades to Iphigenia, it’s also the first lyrical moment between long lost brother and sister, a moving reunion we’ve been waiting for the whole opera.

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Simon Keenlyside leaving us feeling there’s so much more to be said. But we’re out of time. The final chorus follows immediately then the curtain calls begin for the winning performance, and a standing ovation for the French soprano Mireille Delunsch, an ideal Iphigenia with a warm appealing tone and the theatrical good sense never to wear her emotions too openly on her sleeve but to carry them deep within her soul.

Iphigenie en Tauride was Gluck’s last great theatrical triumph, the summit of his operatic reforms combining the best of French and Italian styles. There may be no conventional love interest, there may be fewer arias per square inch than we’re used to, but Marc Minkowski convinces us that Iphigenie is an operatic masterpiece that has lost none of its radical power and richly deserves to be seen and not just heard. And I recommend this version for your library shelves.

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Andrew MacGregor: “The final chorus from Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride, Marc Minkowski conducting the Musiciens du louver with Mireille Delunsch and Simon Keenlyside ideally cast in this live recording from 1999…”

Other recordings which can be found in the CD store

Martin Pearlman (1999), Boston Baroque, Christine Goerke (Iphigenie), Rodney Gilfry (Orestes), Vinson Cole (Pylades)

John Eliot Gardiner (Lyon Opera) Diana Montague (Iphigenie), Thomas Allen (Orestes), The Monteverdi Choir

Maria Callas, 1957

Lamberto Gardelli, Pilar Lorengar (Iphigenie), Walton Grönroos (Orestes), Franco Bonisolli (Pylades), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Thoas)

Thomas Hampson (Orestes), Paul Groves (Pylades), Philippe Rouillon (Thoas)

William Christie (Zurich Opera), Juliette Galstian (Iphigenie), Rodney Gilfry (Orestes)

Henry Lewis (Turin Opera,1974), Marilyn Horne (Iphigenie), Richard Stilwell (Orestes), Werner Hollweg (Pylades)

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