New England Conservatory’s opera department showcased four of its young stars in Wednesday’s night’s semi-staged version of the full 1779 Paris version of Iphigénie en Tauride. Using the four-act Bärenreiter edition by Gerhard Groll from Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Collected Works, this large production included a robed chorus of 15, four scene-chewing leading characters (Iphigenia, her brother-in-disguise Orestes, his friend Pylades, and King Thoas of Tauris) and five additional minor characters, whose staging revolved around the centrally-placed NEC Philharmonia, ably led by Stephen Lord.
One of the most well-loved French operas of the Age of Enlightenment, Iphi ran to over 400 performances by the 1820s in Paris alone. It is also the same masterwork that transformed Hector Berlioz into a composer when the young man first heard the work in 1821, with a huge orchestra of 80 players(!); he not only claimed to have gone straight to the Conservatoire library to copy out the score, but wrote that it inspired his future successes in opera. He wrote about the work’s directness and drama his whole life, advocated for Gluck in the critical war of words (Piccini vs. Gluck), and developed ideas from it for his massive Les Troyens.
Most recent recordings prefer the original, more transparent orchestral balance (sometimes even using period instruments), but La Scala recorded a big, flashy Romantic one with the larger proportions described by Berlioz. NEC’s orchestral complement was small and responsive, with strings mostly covering pairs of woodwinds and three percussion players; they shone when released from their accompanying role, as in the two sequences originally intended for ballet. The opening music of a calm sea, followed by a furious storm, benefitted from shrieking piccolos and ranging winds.
This is no Baroque opera seria, the form Gluck spent the 1760-70s revitalizing and reforming. During his lengthy stay in Paris (1773-79), he turned his energies to the highly contrasting opéra comique and tragédie lyrique traditions. By this time, Gluck was done preserving the Italian distinction between aria and recitative: Iphigénie en Tauride was his fifth opera for the French stage and his second to last operatic work, and he still labeled some sections “recitative” and “air” in the score.
Although many describe his innovations as “doing away with recitative,” he actually incorporates its narrative quality and rhythmic flexibility into a gently accompanied arioso style, after the manner of the more successful ariosos of Rameau. This makes the job of the orchestra much more challenging, and the NEC players occasionally faltered when required to be equal partners to the singers in spinning out of the long dramatic scenes. The strings are almost always present, rather than the simple continuo group typical of Italian-language recitative. Gluck’s arias are quite beautiful but rarely have the self-contained quality typical of the ternary forms of Italian tradition: they are extended through-going scenes built on groups of highly emotional melodies.
Part of Gluck’s reform of opera resulted in the reduction of danced scenes: the normal dances that pervade French opera-ballet and tragédie lyric are almost entirely absent, and NEC included them as purely orchestral works. The choral music ranges from chromatic laments to weirdly modern and patriotic French music that would have been believable as royal military music of the 1770s. Joshua Major’s economical direction used the choristers masterfully, as the seven women often appeared and disappeared from a small riser centrally located under the organ-pipe façade behind the orchestra, but also joined Iphigenia or the eight chorus men at the front of the stage for more dramatic moments. This was particularly effective in Orestes’ Act II dream scene, a tour-de-force with hooded chorus members seething over the body of the Orestes that brought chills to the audience. Baritone Junhan Choi played a very exciting and commanding Orestes and excelled both in his solo and duet singing.
This opera is highly compact (four acts of roughly 30, 35, 25, and 20 minutes each) and shares many of its characters and story elements with Iphigénie in Aulide (1774). Gluck worked from a French libretto by Nicolas-François Guilliard, which in turn was loosely based on Euripides’ tale of the house of Atreus (Agamemnon and his family). Goethe later wrote a version of this story.
The NEC program notes provided a synopsis of this and Gluck’s previous opera, but Tauride’s story takes place after the Trojan War. The subtitles were done “in house,” and were highly literal, providing a clear sense of each character’s mood and intent. However, some of the more famous exclamations (Iphigenia’s “Oh mon dieu!” in Act II appearing as “I am dying.”) were interpreted too broadly, to slightly comic effect.
Few of Gluck’s characters know what has been happening in Greece since Iphigenia was sent to Tauris, on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Herodotus described the Tauri in his Histories as worshipping a virgin goddess, to whom they sacrificed shipwrecked sailors; Euripides was inspired by these legends, unfortunately for Orestes and Pylades, who he shipwrecks on the Crimean coast.
The opera is unusual in that it involves friendship and brother-sister rather than erotic love. Iphigenia and Orestes have scenes of conversation, but their duets that made the biggest impact (in Act II, of friendship) and Act III’s superbly sung “Et tu pretends encore que tu m’aimes” in which they argued violently as to who would carry out a dangerous mission). Rafael Delsid (tenor) as Pylades was simply marvelous with a lean, smooth sound that soared above the strings in his Act II aria.
Iphigenia stole the first act, which begins with a 20-minute prophecy of doom. This is a famously challenging soliloquy, at once recitative-like and sweeping in its range (both dramatic and vocal); it came to life through Cheyanne Coss’s dark and meaty vocal timbre and was strikingly beautiful. Because of the depth of her characterization (Iphigenia has gone through a lot, washed up on the shores of the Crimea, and been transformed into a priestess rather than being sacrificed), I appreciated that her approach to the role was not overly light, but rather rich and full. Coss’s many scenes with the chorus of priestesses were rousing, and when she was called to sing in ensemble with them, she led gently, while blending with the lighter texture. Her high notes bloomed slowly, demonstrating both vocal control and the focus crucial to her many laments.
Josh Quinn (bass-baritone) as King Thoas sang his violent opening aria with great power and gusto. He interpreted Thoas as a heroic figure (after all, he had already pardoned Iphigenia before the opera began), and dominated the stage vocally.
To listen more:
Iphigenie en Tauride was neglected for many years, but performances have been increasing: it was produced at Juilliard last spring and featured in this summer’s Salzburg Festival. There are several fine choices available on CD. John Eliot Gardiner’s 1985 studio version with the Orchestre de L’Opera de Lyon and the Monteverdi Choir on Philips contrasts highly with the live recording by Minkowski in 1999. La Scala’s massive 2010 production (conducted by Muti), recreates most of what inspired Berlioz, and hopefully some of these NEC singers will go on to make recordings of their own as well. NEC should consider live-streaming these events, as they would convert many to opera’s cause through such excellent productions in Jordan Hall.