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Eternal Darkness

Kennedy Center Opera House
05/06/2011 -  & May 9*, 12, 15m, 17, 20, 25, 28, 2011
Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
Patricia Racette (Iphigénie), Jegyung Yang (First Priestess), Sarah Mesko (Second Priestess), Simone Alberghini (Thaos), Javier Arrey (A Scythian ), Shawn Mathey (Pylade), Plácido Domingo (Oreste), Matthew Osifchin (Minister of the Sanctuary), Jennifer Lynn Waters (Diane)
Orchestra, Chorus, and Dancers of the Washington National Opera, Diniz Sanchez (Choreographer/Solo Dancer), Ken Weiss (Chorus Master), William Lacey (Conductor)
Emilio Sagi (Stage Director), Luis Antonio Suarez (Set Designer), Pepa Ojanguren (Costume Designer), Eduardo Bravo (Lighting Designer), Francis Rizzo (Supertitles)

P. Domingo, P. Racette (© WNO)

The Washington National Opera’s current production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, which runs through May 28 in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center, is a mixed bag that features superb musical performances contrasted by a sorely disappointing production. Heading the cast is soprano Patricia Racette as the anti-tragic heroine Iphigénie and the now legendary “tenor turned baritone” Plácido Domingo as her brother Oreste.

Iphigénie en Tauride is one of the most important pivital operas in the history of music, paving the way from the Baroque era into the Classical and Romantic periods. It had enormous influence on later composers from Mozart and Beethoven to Wagner and Berlioz. Gluck and his librettist Guillard based the opera upon Greek theater and mythology to create a work of great human drama.

Iphigénie and Oreste are descendants of the “ill-fated” royal house of Atreus and the children of King Agememnon, who was murdered by their mother Clytemnestra. Iphigénie, whose sister Helen had been abducted by Paris of Troy, was destined to be sacrificed to make the winds blow to sail Agememnon’s army to Troy to avenge Helen. Iphigénie was spirited away by the Goddess Diane to Tauris (Tauride) to escape her execution. Oreste, who murdered Clytemnestra to avenge his father Agememnon’s demise, has been fatefully shipwrecked along with his beloved friend Pylade on Tauris. Though they are brother and sister, neither Oreste or Iphigénie recognize each other at first. Oreste is ordered by King Thaos of Tauris to be slain by Iphigénie as a sacrifice to Diane. When she realizes Oreste is her brother she boldly defies the gods. Like all ancient Greek dramas, this is a complex and convoluted story. The opera however is less a tale of vengeance and woe than it is a story of filial love and the triumph of the human spirit.

Sopano Patricia Racette gives a vocally powerful portrayal of the forlorn Iphigénie. Her singing is quite glorious, and her voice never flags in this long and demanding role of constant imploring and supplication. In fact she grows in splendor and strength throughout the evening. Her voice soars above the chorus in the magnificent aria “O malheureuse Iphigénie” (O unhappy Iphigénie) that concludes Act II. It is a haunting and memorable melody that entwines the voice and chorus with a solo oboe; it is the most famous and enduring number of the opera.

Plácido Domingo assumes the principal baritone role in this opera, but his bronzed and impassioned voice is still unmistakable. He remains, in his seventieth year, the most famous and popular singer in the world of opera and is still a proven box office magnet. His name on the cast roster guarantees a sold out theater. Mister Domingo gives a powerful and penetrating performance as Oreste. The depth of his characterization and his profound musicality are qualities we have come to expect from him, and though he no longer sings tenor his still delivers a riveting performance. All of his moments on the stage were filled with excitement from the sheer charisma of his personality. His duet with Ms. Racette was electric and perhaps the highpoint of the evening.

The secondary roles were, for the most part, well cast, with several roles being taken by members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program. Particular standouts were the excellent soprano Jennifer Lynn Waters as Diana and Matthew Osifchin as the Minister of the Sanctuary, who displayed a rich and warm baritone voice. You will want to keep your eyes on these two rapidly maturing singers.

The orchestra played stylishly well under the superb conducting of Maestro William Lacey, who presented a well-paced performance which favored an elastic accompaniment of the singers. His knowledge of the musical style coupled with a solid baton technique, vividly brought this somewhat unfamiliar score to life. The chorus was well prepared by Chorus Master Ken Weiss. There is indeed a great amount of choral singing in this opera, and the chorus responded well to Maestro Lacey’s direction. The scene in which the chorus forms a triangle behind Ms. Racette for Iphigenie’s big aria was particularly memorable.

The less said about the production the better. It was deplorable on all counts, and perhaps the most boring presentation of any opera I have seen in my almost fifty years of opera going. The ballet was completely risible. The company was entirely displayed in non-period and ridiculous looking black costumes, which were set against a totally black and flat set. Everything was in complete shadow. The effect was unbelievably dull and designed to induce eye strain and loud snoring, which was going on to either side of me. The performers and indeed Gluck himself deserved much better. As far as I am concerned Messrs. Sagi, Suarez, Ojanguren, Bravo, and Sanchez should all be forever banished to the eternal darkness of Tauris. Should you plan on attending this tedious production, you will want to brace yourself with several cups of strong coffee.

Micaele Sparacino



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