Christoph Willibald Gluck, who advocated a less florid vocal style than was popular in the late 18th century, is a composer who tends to be more talked about than performed: even though Maria Callas sang Iphigénie in the Italian translation, his operas are rarely seen. Lyric Opera has made a strong case for him by employing the same director and designer team, Robert Carsen and Tobias Hoheisel, in Orfeo ed Euridice last season and now for his final masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride, of 1779.
Only in the 20th century did Gluck’s almost seamless blending of recitatives and arias smooth out entirely. With accompanying string sections, not simply a harpsichord, his recitatives are more than simple contrivances to advance the plot, and the arias illustrate the characters’ existential dilemmas.
Carsen and Hoheisel updated the ancient Greek myth to a timeless present, with a stage bare of props and with claustrophic black walls resembling a prison cell. Light usually enters from the wings. Dancers emerge and recede under cover of darkness, their choreography, by Philippe Giraudeau, spare and tense. The chorus is kept in the orchestra pit, and sang well.
The mezzo Susan Graham’s molten tone and vivid acting brought to life the Greek priestess, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who has been banished to Tauris. She is ordered by King Thoas (Mark Delavan) to execute two strangers, one of whom turns out to be her brother Pylade.
As the strangers stranded on Tauris, the tenor Paul Groves as Pylade and the baritone Lucas Meachem as Oreste were well matched. Groves showed marvellously athletic acting and vocal urgency, and Meachem made a strong début. Louis Langrée’s conducting carried precious little spark, although he delightfully highlighted Gluck’s piquant woodwinds and barbarous percussion. ★★★★☆
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