I don’t think I’ve ever been to an opera with higher expectations than last night. The show was a piece I love; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. My favourite director, Robert Carsen, was directing. The cast; Susan Graham (Iphigénie), Russell Braun (Oreste), Joseph Kaiser (Pylade), Mark Doss (Thoas) with solid young singers in the minor roles, was as starry as I have seen at the Four Seasons Centre. How could it live up to my expectations? All I can say is that it did.
The stage design for Carsen’s production is about as minimalist as it gets. The raked stage is enclosed by three plain grey walls in the form of a regular trapezoid. Occasionally a rectangular slab (altar) appears centre stage. The chorus chalk the words AGAMEMNON, IPHIGENIE, KLYTEMNESTRE on the walls and later Iphigénie erases them. The rest is done with lighting (Peter van Praet). Even the lighting plot is spare. The palette is predominantly blue-grey with orange/red appearing to symbolise the Furies and the violence of the history of the house of Atreus. Only at the very end does the gloom and claustrophobia lift. Within the gloom though van Praet creates ominous giant shadows of the characters which enormously enhance key scenes.
To play out the drama in this gloomy space Carsen uses dancers and places the chorus in the orchestra pit. Occasionally this leads to minor balance issues between the soloists and chorus but it is a small price to pay for the action on stage. In one particularly effective scene, the Furies carry Oreste and force him to walk sideways across the text of KLYTEMNESTRE. In another they turn into writhing serpents who back Oreste into a corner. In the final scene the “dea ex machina” element is handled about as well as I have ever seen it done. Diana (Lauren Segal) sings, unlit, from what sounded like Ring 4 stage left. The characters on stage are frozen. She resolves the drama and the stage walls rise about six feet to flood the stage with very white light. Unfussy and effective. All in all one feels that Gluck’s ideal of a “beautiful simplicity” is achieved. The one place where the minimalism is a bit of an issue is that all the characters pretty much look the same to the point where it isn’t always obvious who is singing. A good pair of opera glasses, a decent seat and knowing what the main singers look like helps here. I think the approach works in part because the drama moves ahead at a breathless pace. Wagner would need about fifteen hours to get through a story that Gluck manages in less than two hours.
Musically the evening was about as good as it gets. Pablo Heras-Casado pushed things along at a pretty fair pace but didn’t lose the drama. He was helped by some gorgeous woodwinds. The soloists were all quite excellent. Susan Graham owns this part, her rather bright mezzo suits the role and she sounded utterly in command. Joseph Kaiser and Russell Braun worked really well together in a reading that wasn’t as obviously homoerotic as some I’ve seen. Kaiser has a lovely Mozartian tenor and Braun has power and beauty of tone to spare. Mark Doss was appropriately violent as Thoas and I’d really like to see what he could do with something more lyrical. The minor roles were all more than adequately covered by local singers who will be familiar to anyone who frequents the Four Seasons Centre.
So, my unrealistic expectations were met and I thoroughly enjoyed one of the best evenings I’ve spent in an opera house. I’m late to the party though. If you want to catch this show Susuan Graham is singing just one more time on October 12th and there is a final performance with Katherine Whyte in the title role on October 15th.