IN: Reviews

Boston Baroque Warms to French Baroque


No nymphs, shepherds, and satyrs would cavort in Iphigénie en Tauride, despite the fact that Boston Baroque’s genial playing in the bucolic opening to Gluck’s opera may briefly have suggested same; rather, the overture soon crescendoed into a veritable storm and stress light show replete with epilepsy inducing flashes previewing the non-stop Euripides-Racine dramatization of Greek complexes (even without the introduction of Oedipus among the dramatis personæ). Please don’t quiz me on the plot. Let’s just stipulate that Gluck set great music-drama in unfolding the story, giving last night’s  memorable singers a surfeit of apt melodiousness with which to work out their matricides, sibling rivalries, male bonding, plot-advancing furies, interfering gods, unsettling torrents of blood lust, a near execution, and the anything but the predictable final reconciliation. From the unexpectedly grand-operatic  singing, one could imagine a Wotan transported to the French Baroque and perhaps Callas in full mad-scene, scenery-chewing, diva mode.

Soula Parassidis, absolutely dominated in the title role with tremendous intensity as an actor-singer, wielding a dramatic instrument that powerfully transcended all the busy goings-on. Something of a collector of title roles, she certainly triumphed in this one on short notice.  And as a hyphenated Greek herself, she evoked the great actress Irene Pappas in how she inhabited her role. Even when silently reacting, her vivid facial expressions projected her character’s powerful rages and intense suffering. She also executed the gestural language imposed on her by this production, though the handwringing threatened to become a bit twee. Her vocal armament also included a floated pianissimo used to great effect.

Here something needs to be said about the sound qualities of the WGBH Calderwood Studio. It is not a fit place for concerts or opera due to the fact that every surface is deadened with absorbent material. A strange and unconvincing reverb burdened the principal singers. The amplified feed from their wireless body mics came to us seemingly from a single speaker somewhere behind the orchestra. The comprimario singers did not resonate thus, nor did the apparently unamplified orchestra. The acoustic perspective thus disturbingly morphed depending on who was singing or playing. It’s probably going to sound fine on the video, though. And presumably the video with be considerately subtitled. We had to deal with small screens placed at extreme left and right which must have been invisible to most of the crowd; also the translation didn’t load until a few minutes into the show.

Most of the action took place on a narrow platform, running in front of the 40 orchestral players (though a small, raised platform behind the band allowed for some variety in the blocking). The women’s chorus stood on the extreme right and the men to the far left.  Individuals stepped out for small roles. Trying to read the titles while watching the players process left and right required as much head twisting as witnessing a tennis match from the net.

Camilla Tassi’s projections of clouds, waves, and amoebas took on color and fire as the plot progressed and her knowing moon sometimes turned crimson, other times ghostly blue. Much was made of bloody hands. Costuming Iphigenia in a very elegant Doric chiton, Neil Fortin cloaked the men in robust classical tunics. Lighting designer Fred Young followed the action with sensitivity to mood and moment. Mo Zhou, the stage director, conceived the necessarily limited concert-version blocking, developing an intense overall look from projections and insistence upon fully lived-in acting. The show will likely translate to video quite effectively, albeit in an unabashedly modern way.

Martin Pearlman led a sonorous account of the direct and lovely score, which featured some superb wind solos and exuberant drumming. Janisarry and dance moments will stand out in the highlights recording…if there is one. The show progresses quite seamlessly. No herky jerky alternations of dry recits with orchestrally supported arias and ensembles pieces interrupt the flow; the orchestra never stops. Refined beauty emanated from the band throughout in Boston Baroque’s satisfying account of a neglected genre. Pearlman noted Schiller’s 1781 review of a production in Vienna:

Never has a work of music moved me with such purity and beauty as this one.  It is a world of harmony, which goes directly to the soul and dissolves it in a sweet and noble sadness.

Gluck’s writing and the Boston Baroque production marvelously transcended expectation and convention. The run at the WGBH Calderwood Studio continues tonight and Sunday afternoon. Read Pearlman’s notes and Laurence Senelick’s synopsis HERE.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Photos by Sam Brewer

Top:  Soula Parassidis as Iphigénie, Angela Yam as Diana, Jesse Blumberg as Oreste, and William Burden as Pylade
Bottom left: Tenor William Burden voiced Pylade with delicatesse; his stylish, elegant upward slides, hints of sobs, and rising top made a tremendous impression.
Bottom right: Irresistible dramatic soprano Soula Parassidis as Iphigénie and potent BLO baritone Jesse Blumberg as Oreste


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I couldn’t agree more on the annoying and distracting sound in the studio. It reminded me of the echo in a tunnel. There was a visual problem, too. There are brilliant lights behind the scrims [used for projections] that glare through. I had to close my eyes to rest them from it. It was a good performance and it’s a shame it had those technical drawbacks.

    Comment by David Bean — April 22, 2023 at 7:27 am

  2. Another agreement on both the performance and the venue, adding only that the chairs were the least comfortable I’ve had the misfortune to endure in the Boston area. This was the first performance I have attended in that space and I am in no hurry to return. Pity, since the actual opera was outstanding.

    During intermission I mentioned to a cameraman, thinking he’d be in touch with the tech side, that the video screens were much too low. They seemed to be a bit higher for Part II, and I noticed on the way out that the stands were up on dollies. That, at least, slightly improved the sightline for the tennis match.

    Comment by perry41 — April 22, 2023 at 12:20 pm

  3. And regarding the chairs, not only were they uncomfortable, but they were also not cleated together as required by firecodes, I believe.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 22, 2023 at 12:48 pm

  4. I don’t know about the fire code, but the unconnected chairs made it possible to spread out slightly, which helped with comfort.

    Comment by David Bean — April 22, 2023 at 3:57 pm

  5. As I write, the third and fourth acts are occurring. I have never experienced as much discomfort during a performance, and rather than suffer the lower back consequences of staying, my wife and I departed at intermission. The orchestra and the chorus had decent chairs, but the audience was placed in the kind of collapsible chairs one finds at tent weddings or outdoor auctions. David, the chairs still seemed unconnected (on Sunday), but there was no room to spread out. The woman to my right was practically in my lap. Driving home I made the same comment about how reading the titles was like watching a tennis match, and the review describes the annoying acoustic accurately. The minimal staging could have been done just as well in Jordan Hall or any number of other local venues. Shame on Boston Baroque. Every aspect of the performance itself was superb, but the organization did not respect the audience with this arrangement. We are subscribers, but we will not be renewing.

    Comment by Rob — April 23, 2023 at 4:48 pm

  6. This afternoon I spent $9 to watch the opera again online, seated in a comfortable chair. As predicted, the video was very well produced with balanced sound and legible subtitles. I was glad to have another opportunity to enjoy the splendid cast and orchestra.

    Is Boston Baroque disrespecting its hometown audience for the sake of international exposure? All I know is that without assurance of good seating I will not return to that space. I don’t know if there’s any acoustical remedy for live audience. Despite all the high-tech the overall set-up was reminiscent of a high school basketball court with a stage at one end. Sorry – such excellent music-making deserves better.

    Comment by perry41 — April 23, 2023 at 6:25 pm

  7. WRT the chairs; we were at the end of a row, so it was easy to scoot away from the crowd. Someone in the middle could not do that.

    Comment by David Bean — April 25, 2023 at 6:08 pm

  8. Boston Baroque totally blew the dramatic ending with the Greeks’ breaking in on the proceedings which causes the intervention of Diana! Because I had seen one of our Conservatories do Tauride about ten years ago I knew what was to come and cause Diana to make Her dramatic Deus (Dea?) ex Machina entrance and was waiting for it and I had specifically decided to come FOR THIS SCENE! And BB then TOTALLY BLEW IT!! Grrrr!!! No Greeks; Thaos’ “Praetorian” Guard trying to do double duty and maybe save on personnel costs by seemingly briefly impersonating Greeks before fleeing. Totally ruined Diana’s sole appearance; sadly she came across as a teenybopper Missed opportunity and $50 wasted! Some supernumeraries with swords, a clash or two–maybe a few BB supporters doing free volunteer duty might have saved the day! Best to have seen this done ten years ago by Boston Conservatory after a lofty climb needing oxygen tanks and Sherpa guides to a fifth floor performance hall for a fine revelatory performance of what is almost 18th-century Wagner. (JUMP ast any opportunity to see & hear Haydn’s “L’isola Dishabitata” for the other example of 18th century Wagner.) BB singing and playing had nothing to complain about; I too had to put up with an annoying backlight and at the beginning there was a bad echo effect which soon vanished; either they figured out what was happening or my brain filtered it out–brains do do that sometimes. Finally, mention should be made of the annoying placement of the English subtitles to the sides of the stage at some distance. I found myself having to constantly dart my eyes back and forth from the emoting singers to the translation and back. Would have been much better to do a proscenium display–Glimmerglass’s proscenium display was a Happy Accident. There are other Guilty Venues in the Boston area.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 27, 2023 at 7:05 pm

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