Thursday April 18, 2013

KEENE, N.H.

If I seem to reporting on a lot of operas, it is because I am receiving a lot of operas. If I seem to be giving fairly negative reports on many of them, it is because in my system of standards, many of the productions fail on too many aspects.

I believe that opera, like any drama, is about people. These people live at a certain historical period and place, and they dress as that period and place dictate. They also act as that period and place dictate and make references to that period and place.

I can now deal with this week’s report.

The plays of Euripides were favorite sources of later playwrights, and many of their plays were favorite sources of operas. In the 18th century, Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787) was determined to find an "international voice" for opera to stop the war between the exponents of the French and the Italian styles. And so in 1773 Gluck set to music a French libretto, based on a play by Racine, "Iphigenie en Aulide." It was performed in Paris a year later and revised in 1775.

Note: I am going use the French spellings of the characters’ names as they appear in the cast listing.

The opera tells the story of Agamemnon having to sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenie to make the winds blow his fleet to Troy. Euripides has her killed offstage but theatergoers of Racine’s time liked happy endings, and Gluck reluctantly had all end well.

In 1779, his "Iphigenie en Tauride," based on a play on another Euripides play that does indeed have a happy ending. Later, Gluck revised it to a German text, but that does not concern us here.

Well, in 2011, an audience was treated to a double feature of both works at the De Nederlandse Opera, Marc Minkowski conducting. The productions are now available on a two-DVD set on the Opus Arte label, more about which below.

Both operas are given the same staging, which gives the audience little to watch. Most of the action takes place in a small playing area, flanked by two sets of metallic stairways. The orchestra is behind the playing area and the invisible chorus behind the orchestra. (The sound of dislocated voices is effective, I must admit.)

The costumes for the soldiers and even for Iphigenie and Clytemnestre -- who would expect anything else nowadays? -- are covered with ground troop camouflage patterns, while Agamemnon wears a naval commander’s outfit. So even here, the audience is deprived of interesting colors. (Is there a prize given to the director who provides the dullest visual production?)

Veronique Gens looks considerably older than the teenage Iphigenie should look, but her excellent vocal and acting techniques make up for it. Mirelle Delunsch is the Iphigenie in Tauride, who sings well but cannot create an interesting character, looking merely disturbed until the happy ending, in which she still looks disturbed. And the comedy of the misunderstanding between Clytemnestre and Achille (Frederic Antoun) is in the opera between him and Iphigenie and the scene is serious.

There is nearly unintentional comedy on Tauride as the imprisoned Oreste (Jean-Francois Lapointe) and Pylade (Yann Beuron) argue endlessly over which one will die and which will carry a message back to Argos. (Each insists on dying.) The villainous master of Tauride, Thoas (Laurent Alvaro), gets a chance to look threatening in his Fascist black outfit and sings with a strong sense of character.

After being bored to distraction by the Metropolitan Opera production of "Tauride" a year or so ago, I am very happy to have seen this production, which gives me some idea of what Gluck had in mind -- except that his productions must have been a colorful sight to behold.

The running time for both works is 229 minutes (they are almost equally long), and there is some bonus material at the end of each disc. The picture is wide screen and there are subtitles in five languages.

What there is NOT are tracking lists in the booklet, so one must turn to the menus on the discs for very unsatisfactory ones. How much more would it cost the producers of the set to include them in the program notes as most other DVD companies do? Shame!

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.