One problem faces all Gluck interpreters: how do you extract the meat from the marble? It explains why we encounter his masterpieces so rarely, and why Monday’s performance of Iphigénie en Tauride – the first at Covent Garden for 35 years – was so uninvolving. Despite its tragic depths, its melodic abundance and dramatic variety, the work’s austerity is forbidding. Like a monument, Iphigénie has its weights and balances: heroic but intimate, grandly tragic without being frigid or marmoreal, weighty yet swift in its storytelling.
In trying to resolve these extremes Robert Carsen’s staging finds itself out of kilter on several fronts. Tobias Hoheisel’s design places the action within a monochrome box, its slate-black mass relieved only at the end to reveal a dawn of brilliant light, releasing Agamemnon’s daughter from her physical and psychological imprisonment. This tangled tale of blood-relationships, life-and-death situations and intensely shared experiences is clamped within a frame too unsparingly modish to engage the emotions.
It’s not just a fault of the staging. In his conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Ivor Bolton leaves the impression of small-scale resources trying to fit a large-scale musical imagination. Bolton is trapped inside a Handel-to-Mozart time-warp, with a technical awareness of style but not the wherewithal to realise the music’s theatrical grandeur: the gestures sound small-scale. He glides over the silences that are an essential part of Gluck’s design, not least before Orestes’ Act Four aria. The OAE nevertheless makes a brilliant showpiece of the opening storm music.
Susan Graham’s Iphigenia starts with a tall figure and excellent French, neither of which she uses to advantage. She wanders the stage like Elektra’s alter ego, adopting stand-or-sit poses for her arias but never really delivering. The voice sounds unexpectedly pretty at the top but impersonal in the middle; she makes no effort to colour the text. On that score she could learn a thing or two from Simon Keenlyside, who has only to open his mouth or move an arm to shake up the performance. His Orestes, strongly supported by Paul Groves’s Pylades and Clive Bayley’s Thoas, offers a vision of what this Iphigénie could have been with a bit more meat on the slab.