A vigorous revival
10/31/2009 - & 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 November
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
Peggy Kriha Dye (Iphigénie), Kresimir Spicer (Oreste), Thomas McLeay (Pylade), Olivier Laquerre (Thoas), Curtis Sullivan (Le Ministre), Cassandra Warner (La Prêtresse), Ambur Braid (Diane)
Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins (Choir Director), Andrew Parrott (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Director), Gerard Gauci (Set Designer), Dora Rust D’Eye (Costume Designer), Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (Choreographer), Kevin Fraser (Lighting Designer)
K. Spicer & T. McLeay(© Bruce Zinger)
Opera Atelier’s supercharged production of Gluck’s most intense opera, first presented in 2003, returns for six performances at the Elgin Theatre.
The company cites a historicist perspective for both its unique dance-based movement style and the designs they commission, but the sheer energy of the results, combined with the urgent conducting of Andrew Parrott, give the 1779 work a new lease on life. There is nothing musty or merely polite about it.
Gerrad Gauci’s attractive Pompeiian set gives us a glimpse of stormy coastline behind the stern temple of Diana. The words “glitzy” and “restrained” rarely occur together, but Dora Rust D’Eye’s costumes manage to combine both qualities.
The 18-voice chorus is relegated to the stage boxes, leaving the stage free for the two groups of dancers: Iphigénie’s female temple attendants (perhaps a bit too limpid at times) and the aggressive male followers of the barbaric Thoas.
All three principals give fully committed performances. As Ipihigénie, Peggy Kriha-Dye (a regular with this company) gives further evidence of the riveting, even fierce, way she can handle a role, as she demonstrated in 2008 as Ilia in Idomeneo.
Oreste is usually sung by a baritone, but (like at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007), we have tenor Kresimir Spicer, returning to Opera Atelier after his successful portrayal of Idomeneo. In an interview Mr Spicer states that his voice might be moving in a Wagnerian direction. Given its impressive size, combined with its baritonal quality, this could well be in his future.
The two-tenor casting works when we have singers with contrasting timbres and that is the case here. Pylade is ably sung by Thomas McLeay in his company debut. He has recently progressed from singing apprentice roles, mostly with l’Opéra de Montréal. The Elgin Theatre, for all its movie palace rocaille (beautifully restored) tends to be a sound-swallower, but his voice rings out nicely. His dashing re-appearance in the final scene, as he rescues Oreste from sacrifice, is downright Errol Flynn-esque. (This scene also emphasizes this work as a seminal rescue opera, a genre that was soon to become popular.)
Opera Atelier’s “co-artistic directors”, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, are faced with a heroine who is not given any hint of romantic connection (which would have been de rigeur under the conventions of opera seria). They have thus decided to emphasize the attachment between the two male leads. When Pylade addresses Oreste as “mon ami” he could well be saying “mon amour”.
A slight disappointment is that the villain of the piece, Thoas, fails to register as strongly as he should. One problem is that Gluck doesn’t give him all that much music to establish himself (contrast this with Beethoven’s treatment of his villain, Don Pizarro, in Fidelio). Olivier Laquerre disports himself in true Opera Atelier style, however.
Two smaller roles are notably well handled. Ambur Braid, in the brief deus ex machina role of the goddess Diana, gives a fine vocal impression even though placed behind the altar at stage rear, a location that makes dramatic sense but is no treat for a singer. Young Cassandra Warner also makes the most of Iphigénie’s assistant priestess. (She will be performing Cendrillon in the Massenet opera at the Royal Conservatory in March, something to look forward to.)
There are places when the musical-dramatic tension subsides, but this is due not the direction or performances, but to the structure of the work. Iphigénie en Tuaride is arguably the prime representative of Gluck’s “reform” style (and comes 17 years after the breakthrough work, Orfeo ed Euridice). One reason for its unevenness lies in the fact that Gluck borrowed pieces from earlier works when he was composing to libretti by Metastasio in the opera seria mode, namely La Clemenza di Tito of 1752, premiered in Naples, and Antigono of 1756, performed in Rome. (I am indebted to the notes by Claudio Osele accompanying Cecilia’ Bartoli’s Gluck/Metastsio CD of 2001). Undoubtedly no one in 1779 Paris was familiar with these earlier works from his long and peripatetic career. The music he borrowed from himself is certainly beautiful.
The Tafelmusik Orchestra, boosted to its 37-member size, is in its usual fine shape. Special attention must be paid to its Music Director, Jeanne Lamond. For Iphigénie she is the concertmaster but she often conducts the group from her orchestral chair as she has since 1981. Her orchestra and choir are civic treasures and the Opera Atelier vision could not be achieved without them. (And, on a practical note, its healthy concert subscriber base helps Opera Atelier fill seats.)
This wonderful opera has had a tenuous place in the North American opera repertoire. There has been a flurry of productions in the 2000s and I am delighted that Toronto has had its share of the action, especially in Opera Atelier’s unique style of presentation.