Out in the blood
Glyndebourne Festival Theatre
05/19/2002 - and 21, 24, 26, 28 May, 1, 8, 12, 14, 22, 25, 28 June, 3, 5 July
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide
Gerald Finley (Agamemnon), Clive Bayley (Calchas), Veronrica Cangemi (Iphigénie), Katarina Karnéus (Clitemnestre), Jonas Degerfeld (Achille), Riccardo Simonetti (Patrocle), Charbel Mattar (Arcas), Marie Arnet (Diane)
Ivor Bolton (conductor), Christof Loy (director)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne Chorus
Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide has, like Euripides' original play but unlike Racine's, the immediate source of Gluck's librettist, an ending in which nobody gets killed: Diana is moved by the courage and nobility of Iphigenia, whose sacrifice she has demanded, and announces that she is spared and the Greek fleet can sail for Troy. But right until the denouément, both Agamemnon and Iphigenia are convinced that her death is inevitable however painful it is for them, Calchas and the Greek army are single-mindedly intent on it, and Clytemnestra and Achilles are violently over-protective and full of rage. We are even introduced briefly to Patroclus, another object of Achilles' obsessive love whose death later leads Achilles to run amok. The only non-violent tone comes at the end of the first act, when Iphigenia and Achilles are reunited, believing that the obstacles to their love have been removed, in a sensuous duet. But the beauty of the music is an agonizing irony rather than relief from the overall grimness.
Perhaps this ingenuity of misery -- only Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa comes to mind as being in the same league of unremitting awfulness -- is the reason Iphigénie en Aulide has not been performed very often, though a plot that entwines sexual, ethnic and military power politics clearly has potential these days, and Opera North did a version in 1996. But detailed contemporary relevance is not the point: Christof Loy's new production for the Glyndebourne Festival ends in a nightmare that is only fractionally removed from what has gone before, but which tells us that we cannot escape from reading the curse of the house of Atreus and the sack of Troy back into the opera, as emphasized by Clytemnestra's vision of horror and the final military chorus as the Greeks head off to Troy. Violence is built into the subject matter, and into human nature -- hence Aristotle's idea that drama is a safe purging of the emotions it arouses to keep our spiritual health in balance.
Loy's nightmare vision seems to be justified: both plays and opera lack another element that Aristotle wants in drama, recognition. There is no discovery of truth based in character or personal identity, as there is in the other Iphigenia play and opera. In Iphigenia in Tauris, Iphigenia's recognition that the stranger she is about to kill is her brother Orestes forces her and us to confront the basis in herself of her willingness to kill. Any half way decent production will have the audience weeping or on its feet cheering. In the events at Aulis, in contrast, everybody simply suffers endlessly from a horrific situation that cannot be resolved, until a deus ex machina provides a way out that leaves things emotionally no different.
In some respects, Iphigénie en Aulide seems desperately out of place at Glyndebourne. On the most practical level, there is no satisfying place for the compulsory supper interval: at the end of the first act the arc towards Iphigenia's planned wedding is underway and should not be broken, and at the end of the second act, Agamemnon is about to kill either himself or her. (They had the interval after the second act, which can't have done much for the uptake of rare roast beef in Nether Wallop.) More generally, it is not exactly the stuff of an upmarket country-house sojourn. On the other hand, the music is beautiful, and enough like Mozart, to please most audiences and, less trivially, the theatre is ideally suited for it -- large enough for a sense of epic importance, but the right size for the right voices -- while Glyndebourne's extensive rehearsals and exceptional casting give everyone a chance to confront the difficulties involved, as well as to integrate the formal elements, especially Jochen Heckmann's dances.
The costumes are modern (business suits and film noir) in acts one and three and eighteenth-century-ish (hoop dresses and baroque armour) in act two and, in more theatrical style, for Diana and her attendants. The set is a white box whose floor, which turns black in act three, sinks to form platforms that separate the characters, and apart from some abstract representations of perhaps the sea and storm clouds on scrims there is no other decoration. It is mildly dramatic in itself and conveniently throws all the attention on to the characters, who are played straight: status conscious Clytemnestra has a touch of Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, Iphigenia is a sweet, loving young woman torn between her estranged parents, Achilles is charismatic, sentimental and prone to violent outbursts, and Agamemnon can't quite cope and is torn to pieces by the conflict of public duty and private love.
Veronica Cangemi was quietly resilient as Iphigenia and very moving, singing as if she were speaking much of the time. Katarina Karnéus as Clytemnestra was vocally brittle and dry at the start, though suitably haughty, but she came into her own once her child rather than her social standing was in danger, in her scena in act two especially. As Agamemnon, Gerald Finley was personally confused but superbly lucid in his singing. The Swedish tenor Jonas Degerfeld was a good-looking Achilles, perhaps erring on the side of soppiness at times and not quite forceful enough in his murderous promise of vengeance at the start of act three. Clive Bayley was very sinister as a grand-inquisitor like Calchas, perhaps a bit unfocussed at times in his singing but definitely frightening.
The chorus and the orchestra played a more integral role than usual in opera seria, coming close at times to the integration of, say, Handel's late oratorios. The orchestra enacts the emotional drama in a way that at times suggests Puccini or Strauss, starting with the overture's stormy evocation of the winds that delay the Greek fleet and Agamemnon's inner turmoil. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was on great form, providing a current of palpable anger and despair at the appropriate moments. The chorus, representing the Greek army, formed a single mass of emotion, from clinging adoration of Iphigenia in act 1 to murderous single-mindedness in act three. Loy made them a single physical mass as well, a many-limbed monster swarming on the stage.
The production is clearly not for everybody, although it is fully justified intellectually, at least until the final collapse into despair, and by the music throughout. If it were Euripides, it would be unsurprising and even regarded as a touch dull without performances as good as those of the singers tonight.