On July 22 at Tanglewood, conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, in his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was joined by world renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in a presentation of high Baroque music featuring instrumental dance suites by Jean-Phillipe Rameau and Johann Sebastian Bach, as well as vocal selections from operas by Christoph Willibald Gluck and George Frideric Handel. Oddly, the program presented these pieces, all culled from a period of just over fifty years from the musically tumultuous eighteenth century, in reverse chronological order. While the program order laid bare the evolution of musical style in the period, it also forced unflattering comparisons.
The concert opened with two arias from Gluck’s masterpiece Iphigénie en Tauride, “Grands Dieuz! Soyez-nous secourables” from Act One and “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie” from Act Two. Graham’s performance here is a reprise of the celebrated interpretation she gave alongside Plácido Domingo at the Met just last February (itself a revival from a 2007 production). While the authority and elegance of her stage presence made for an excellent mythical daughter of Agamemnon, her vocal restraint and lush tone made the performance an epiphany.
Iphigénie, perhaps even more than Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, is an example of his complete mastery of dramaturgy and a testament to the success of his operatic reforms that gave priority to the drama over formal conventions and vocal ornamentation. Thus, voices and even choruses are heard in the traditionally instrumental overture, recitatives are accompanied with dramatic precision, and the vocal line itself is marked by a clear simplicity, a trait that the Italians have characterized as “enslaving the voice to the orchestra.” Graham’s performance on Saturday night was, however, unfettered. Her bronze instrument joined the orchestra in a suspenseful and riveting rendition of Iphigénie’s despair and suffering.
Gluck’s reforms in Iphigénie were brought into even sharper relief when followed by the Suite from Rameau’s Pigmalion. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition had a terrible effect on one’s impression of Ramaeu’s piece, leaving it seeming staid and terribly conservative; this was especially apparent in the second movement, “Les different caractères de la danse,” which proceeds quickly and orderly through a maze of brief dance stylizations (the Gavotte, minuet, chaconne, etc). Thus the program brought the audience from the progressive extreme of Gluck’s abandonment of convention to the conservative extreme of Rameau’s adherence to it. This was an effect that Heras-Casado’s youthful and vigorous interpretation of both scores could not overcome.
After the Rameau, Graham returned to the stage “wearing the pants” in order to sing two of Handel’s greatest Italian arias for castrati, “Sta nell’Ircana” from Act Three of Alcina and “Scherza infida” from Act Two of Ariodante. Of the two, my favorite was the first, “Scherzo infida” and not for Graham’s beautiful trills, wide leaps, or marathon runs, but for her exacting control of her vibrato. The cadenza was simply breathtaking. For “Sta nell’Ircana” her vocal performance was equally virtuosic, but it lacked the dramatic detail. Her smile and lack of gesture contradicted the warrior’s search for revenge. In any case, when the number ended the audience rewarded her with a well deserved standing ovation.
Almost as an afterthought, when Graham left the stage, Heras-Casado ended the evening with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D, BWV 1069. The interpretation seemed fine, but the after Graham’s fireworks, the gravitas of the orchestral suite seemed a little too much for the emotionally drained audience. For all of his strength in interpretation and attention to detail, Hera-Casado deserved more than the mild applause that the audience gave him.
Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.