As the Royal Opera House prepares for its forthcoming Ring Cycle, Iphigénie en Tauride offers an interesting contrast. Severe and beautiful, Gluck's second Iphigénie could not have been written for any city other than Paris. For Agamemnon and Clytem-nestra are not the only ghosts to haunt this opera. Also present are Lully, Rameau and Charpentier, masters of the tragédie lyrique, and Racine and Voltaire, while Iphigenia – who was sentenced to death at the close of Iphigénie en Aulide, then rescued by Diana and condemned to murder any strangers who arrive on the shores of Tauris – is herself a living ghost.
Framed in a vast charcoal box, and lit to a pupil-dilating perpetual dusk, Robert Carsen's modern-dress staging, though beautifully choreographed and designed, shows mistrust of his audience's ability to understand either Iphigenia's backstory or Gluck's aesthetics. With the chorus singing from the pit, dancers re-enact the deaths of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra: drawing knives across throats, dashing heads against walls, splattering the matt black surfaces with great blooms of glistening wetness.
Carsen's thesis appears to be that Orestes and Iphigenia are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, a diagnosis that Gluck, who dealt with the unmedicalised abstracts of guilt and sorrow, would not have understood. Though their love is as chaste as the Bach gigue Gluck references in Iphigenia's final aria, "Je t'implore et je tremble", Iphigenia (Susan Graham) is here a shivering, prematurely-aged girl-child, while Orestes (Simon Keenlyside) repeatedly writhes in horror at the memory of his matricide. When Diana (Cécile van de Sant) restores order, both siblings are left reeling by the magnesium-bright light that surrounds them.
If the staging is too brutal, too didactic, the singing is largely seductive, most particularly from Paul Groves (a lyrical Pylades) and Jacques Imbrailo (Scythian). Orestes is a role Imbrailo might consider, as the simplicity of his singing would be a better fit for this part than Keenlyside's now over-mannered style. In the title role, Graham's gorgeous, creamy, flexible sound is unconnected to her fragile, trembling characterisation, while Clive Bayley's Thoas is an unnuanced snarler. In the pit, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenement were slow to warm up under Ivor Bolton, then impressive. Were they raised a little, I suspect Gluck's alchemy of austerity and sensuality might be more impactful from the off-set. As it is, Iphigénie is a muted beginning to the 2007/8 season.
In the sunny acoustics of Cadogan Hall, Harry Bickett's inaugural performance as Artistic Director of The English Concert augured badly. Used to the bravura expressivity of his predecessor, Andrew Manze, the players were poised to pounce greedily on the picnic-hamper of musical delicacies in Haydn's Symphony no 84 and Symphony no 88. But Bickett blithely carried on beating, in neat, regular time, with neat, regular movements, ignoring every opportunity to have a little fun with the music and thereby preventing anyone else from having any.
If the delicate floral cadenza of the first symphony's Andante and the raucous bagpipe drone of the second symphony's Minuet still sparkled, it still seems that Bickett is more of an inhibitor than an inspirer: a safe pair of hands when what The English Concert needs is a firecracker if it is to compete with the other period instrument orchestras. Salvation came in the form of Elizabeth Watts, who delivered charmingly characterised arias from La finta giardiniera, La clemenza di Tito and Mitridate. Lovely sound, lovely personality, lovely top notes. But what a shame to hear such colourful orchestral accompaniment conducted in black and white.
'Iphigénie en Tauride' (020 7304 4000) to 29 Sept
Further reading Pierre Grimal's 'Dictionary of Classical Mythology'Reuse content