The ruthless realities of myth

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Iphigenie has the worst job in the world, but she does it well. She grasps the half-naked prisoner around the shoulders and slashes his throat with her knife, holding him to drain the blood into her sacrificial tray. That done, she tumbles the corpse into an incinerator, following it with a squirt of disinfectant. But now Thaos’s soldiers march in with a dozen more victims, plastic bags on their heads, and she has to work faster.

Barrie Kosky’s new production of Gluck’s darkly dramatic Iphigenie auf Tauris is nothing if not graphic. The prisoners are bruised and battered, the soldiers crazed and dishevelled, blood spurts in dirty gouts. In the pit, Paul Goodwin drives the score’s terrified heartbeat and bleak drama with equal clarity. In their hands, this 18th-century French tale of Greek antiquity becomes uncomfortably contemporary, a tale of military prisons where bad things happen and humans are driven to dreadful extremes.

That, of course, was the point from the start, as much for Euripides as for Gluck. This Iphigenie, instead of being sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, has been whipped off by the goddess Diana to the island of Tauris, where she has to work for her living dispatching every male newcomer to the island. King Thaos is trying – inevitably unsuccessfully – to elude an oracle that he will die by the hand of a stranger. Iphigenie recognises intended victim Orest as her brother, and he fulfils the prophecy.

Tales of violence, fear and matricide are drawn from the depths of dark experience, and we are not meant to watch them in comfort. Kosky and Goodwin make it all feel distressingly real. This is the kind of thing at which Berlin’s Komische Oper is becoming increasingly adept after years of slumping standards: Music theatre that bites.

Kosky’s vision is shocking, meticulous and flawlessly executed. We feel both the gritty humanity and the spine-chilling spiritual realities of the opera. When Iphigenie threatens to ignore king Thaos’s brutal command, soldiers casually shoot two of her priestesses dead. Orest is pursued by frightening furies, old ladies naked but for panties and pearls, shadowed by their elderly partners. Though the supernatural is never quite explained, the hard granite cliffs (sets: Klaus Grünberg) melt and sway in a hallucinogenic moment when Diana speaks. And Gluck’s happy end is neatly subverted, as the three heroes are left, suitably traumatised, to stair at the wall through the final chorus.

Geraldine McGreevy is a forceful Iphigenie, driven past the borders of sanity, yet magnificently eloquent in her arias. Kevin Greenlaw makes an intensely physical Orest, wiry and distraught, beyond beautiful lyricism except in his heart-rending duets with Peter Lonahl’s mellifluous Pylades. Ronnie Johansen plays Thaos as a brutish pig, hoarse and rough and bravely disgusting. The chorus is on top form and the orchestra plays with lean elegance. Goodwin has Gluck’s exquisitely crafted score absolutely under his fingers, and draws an unexpectedly polished form of historically informed style from his Komische Oper musicians. For all its sheen, the music never loses the acid taste of fear, or its undertone of violence.
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