Life is rarely black and white, especially in Ancient Greek drama.
But Robert Carsen's new production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride would have us believe otherwise. Carsen treats the drama as a black void into which no light spills until the gods' anger is quelled in the closing tableau of the opera, when the stage is suddenly illuminated. In itself, this is a powerful moment, though it's a long time coming. Other aspects of the production work well intermittently; one can see, for instance, that the drama is all inside Iphigénie's head, and the use of mime to depict dreams, visions and predictions (such as Iphigénie's opening narrative) is clever enough.
But otherwise, I found this Iphigénie scarcely less tedious than the Royal Opera's production of Pelléas et Mélisande earlier in the year. Three black walls were all that we were treated to for two and a quarter very long hours. The chorus was consigned to the orchestra pit and replaced by dancers onstage; this is totally against one of Gluck's major operatic revolutions, namely the greater integration of the chorus into the drama. In the early scenes, the names of Iphigénie and her parents, Clytemnestre and Agamemnon, were written in chalk on the walls, with Oreste's (her brother) on the heavily raked stage floor; these names were later rubbed out symbolically by the dancers, but it hardly made for gripping theatre. The lighting (by Carsen and Peter Van Praet) was so dim that most of the time the singers' faces were indistinguishable. Coupled with the black costumes of Tobias Hoheisel (who was also the set designer), this homogenised the characters and made the drama devoid of personalities. By favouring the psychological over the classical - though some will probably feel that the square walls, the square drawn on the stage floor and the 'Greek chorus'-style dancers were classical - Carsen fatally overlooked one of the most important elements of this opera. There was no colour, no life, no contrast and nothing to engage with. For me, this was a very dreary experience that started nowhere and went nowhere very slowly, and from the mixture of booing and cheering at the curtain calls, it seems I was not alone.
Disappointing, too, was the music. With three fantastic singers, an expert in music of the period and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the potential for success was great. But the same problems that I had with Ivor Bolton's conducting of Don Giovanni earlier in the year recurred here. Extreme tempi, often ponderous but sometimes too fast to allow the singers to breathe, bass-heavy and violin-light orchestral balance and a lack of dynamic contrast characterised an uneven reading. The OAE played beautifully and evidently has great respect for Bolton, and the benefit of having period instruments was especially brought home by the distinctive timbres of the woodwind instruments. But a lack of space and flexibility, and generally weak co-ordination between stage and pit, gave the singers a vulnerable environment in which to perform.
Neither Susan Graham nor Simon Keenlyside were at their best in this performance, even though they were still excellent. The tessitura of the role of Iphigénie is occasionally a little too high for Graham, so she sounded strained and exposed once or twice in a way that was unusual for her; this was partly the product of the unresponsive conducting, however. There was a spellbinding quality about her voice, and her aria at the start of Act Four drew deserved applause, but this was not her night. Similarly, Keenlyside's Oreste was uncharacteristically hard pushed by some of the music and the ease of his treacly baritone was not quite there at times. The production was to blame in many respects, requiring him to sing while lying flat on his back or after climbing up a wall sideways or with his back to the audience. And from my seat, the OAE often sounded too loud for all the singers, which, considering the small size of the orchestration, is saying something.
Tenor Paul Groves produced some of the most stylish singing of the night, and his performance of Pylade's aria at the close of Act Three drew the first applause of the night after the interval. He has a feel for the French declamatory style of the score and the right tonal attributes in his voice for the part.
Other than those three, the only singer really to impinge on my consciousness was baritone Jacques Imbrailo, one of the Royal Opera's Young Artists. Playing A Scythian, he excelled in his brief appearance thanks to strong projection and his perfect accent. The other singers were all more than adequate vocally, but they seemed like ciphers because of the bleak production.
It has been a dark week for the Royal Opera, with first Bryn Terfel backing out of the Ring Cycle and now this disappointing new production. Let's hope things improve when the Ring takes to the stage in October.