Iphigénie en Tauride, Christoph Willibald Gluck

Hamburgische Staatsoper

12th June, 2009

There is a vein of purest gold running through the heart of Gluck’s operas, a timeless beauty that glimmers no less today than it did for the court of Marie-Antoinette 230 years ago.  But mining this ore beneath the strata of Baroque sensibility (with its fondness for mistaken identities, hyperbolic emotion, and interceding divinities) presents a challenge to the modern opera director, who must strive to make the material relevant, affecting, and understandable today.  In attempting this, too many directors end up handing us an incoherent mish-mash of styles and settings, of myth and “realism”.  Such is the case in Philippe Calvario’s new production of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Hamburgische Staatsoper.  As my brain wearied of trying to answer the most basic narrative questions - where are we? who are these people? why do I care about them? - I eventually abandoned my questioning and allowed myself to be sustained by the gorgeousness of Gluck’s music alone, particularly as crafted by the exquisite Krassimira Stoyanova in the title role.

Calvario has placed our exiled heroine in a community of scrap-yard workers living on some desolate strand of sea.  While this was an interesting aesthetic choice (the rusting hulls of ships providing a backdrop of post-industrial decay that functioned visually as well as acoustically), the potentially illuminating implications of setting Tauris in the migrant laborers’ realm of brutality and displacement were unfortunately little developed beyond the ragtag costuming of the chorus of male “workers”.

Bernd Uhlig

And these were the most interesting of the costumes: the designer made the common error of thinking that placing the rest of the cast in shapeless black and grey frocks would confer upon them a kind of neutral, Every(wo-)man status.  In fact, it just looks bad and cheap.  I tolerated the chorus of Greek women with their lack of wigs and their frumpy cloaks, as though they had become wraithlike and desexed by their exile, but that our heroine, a princess, should appear as a kind of lumpen bag-lady, with stringy hair and an ill-fitting overcoat, made it difficult at times for us to see what was sympathetic or noble within her. 

But it was not the costumes alone that minimized the impact of Ms. Stoyanova’s performance, which was surely honest and committed throughout.  The problem was that the direction overall was simply awkward, and never found a way to successfully embody the supersized emotions of Greek myth and of Gluck’s opera.  Most of the time the singers were left alone to rant and writhe around on the stark set as they journeyed through multiple variations of repeated text, with occasional, unmotivated shifts to this or that set-piece.  One can only beat one’s head in agony against the proscenium so many times before we begin to feel a bit bored and even excluded in the audience.

The lighting design, by Bertrand Couderc, did not help matters, and was so amateurish that to call it a “design” at all is to flatter it.    The overuse of a bright follow-spot on the otherwise blandly dim stage both obscured the action and distracted with its relentless presence.

One strained to see the choreography (by Sophie Tellier) which was yet another mismatched element of the production.  What was surely meant to be primal and earthy - the dancing of the Furies, the fighting of the dockworkers  - came across as camp: a mix of go-go dancing and some kind of white-man’s crunk.  The incorporation of a nightmarish vision of Clytemnestra was the one effectively striking element of these scenes, though here again, her costume (a chartreuse pageant gown) came from another universe and made no narrative sense.

But this show had a saving grace: Gluck’s music itself, which under the nimble and inspired touch of Maestro Alessandro De Marchi seemed to breathe and glow, ember-like.  The Maestro and Ms. Stoyanova made exquisitely beautiful music together throughout, her sweetness of tone and the spontaneity of her ever-unfurling, bel canto vocal line allowing the music to truly live.

So if we could not really see Iphigénie’s vulnerability in her trudging physicality, we could hear it in her quicksilver voice.  Perhaps this was meant to be the point?  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux”.  As Gluck’s simple, perfectly-spun melodies emerged from the brownish muddle onstage, we were lead to ponder the fate of a woman who had lost it all - homeland, title, family - but in whom a kernel of dignity and self-knowledge remained.

The men in the cast (whom I will not individually list here, out of kindness) were unfortunately not quite up to the level of Ms. Stoyanova.  Though all gave committed dramatic performances, each was markedly flawed in his own way (and that way can be summarized as “shouting”).

The one other memorable voice in the cast was that of Ann-Beth Solvang in her brief solo as the goddess Diane, sung with shimmering beauty and a self-possessed presence.  But why was she literally popping out of a foam-core Greco-Roman statue? This moment made so little sense as to be merely comical, and was robbed of whatever numinous import it might have had.

In truth, I felt just one brief moment in the show when everything seemed to come together and to make sense, and this was in the final scene of Act II, when the chorus of Greek women join in Iphigénie’s lamenting invocation.  Seamlessly, beyond our perceiving, the voice of Iphigénie becomes one with the soft horn section, which becomes one with the chorus as they carry small sheltered flames to their improvised altar, misty with the nighttime sea air.  Maestro De Marchi held out the final suspension with such tender patience that I actually felt suspended myself . . .

I held my breath and could sense the hushed awe of the audience around me. 

These are the journeys of transformation that Gluck can lead us on, and that even the most jumbled production cannot obstruct.  In these moments, we feel the Faith of the Enlightenment reaching us across a span of three centuries: a belief that the redemptive power of Beauty will forever shine its follow-spot into the dark chaos.

Bottom line: Leave your opera glasses at home, close your eyes, and savor the music


Georges Briscot

Production Credits

Conductor: Alessandro De Marchi
Director: Philippe Calvario
Set design: Jon Morell
Lighting: Bertrand Couderc
Choreography: Sophie Tellier
Chorus: Florian Csizmadia


Iphigénie: Krassimira Stoyanova
Oreste: Christopher Maltman
Pylade: Toby Spence
Thaos: Thomas J. Mayer
Diane: Ann-Beth Solvang

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS PRODUCTION: http://www.hamburgische-staatsoper.de/