The heroine comes to Aulis to marry the hero Achilles. First her father lies to her, saying that Achilles has already been unfaithful, then the goddess Diana demands that her father sacrifice her, so that the Greek fleet can set sail for Troy. Having accepted her fate, at the last minute her life is saved. "How sweet, but how difficult," she says, "to pass so suddenly from the most cruel torment to supreme happiness." The opera ends with a sinister hymn to war, whose music surely sounded as gloomy in 1774 as it does now.
For all its eccentricities, Opera North's new staging never gets in the way of the music. The conductor, Valentin Reymond, led an intense, occasionally brusque interpretation. By the start of Act 3, the orchestra was in such good form (horns excepted) that we welcomed the chance to hear the Passecaille, even if Gluck never meant it to go there and, like all the dance music, it went undanced (for obvious financial reasons).
The aesthetic of its designer, Nigel Lowery, borrows playfully from that of the poster and cartoon strip, but it is so alive, so convinced of its own purposiveness, that it seizes the spectator in a vice-like grip. Achilles waved a sword and wore a tunic that made him look like the Daily Express nerdy crusader logo, yet Neill Archer made him into a coherent character. Like most of the cast, he did his very best with a role that nature had not equipped him to sing: it is an impossibly high tenor role. Lynne Dawson was suffering from the after-effects of a chest infection and her performance in the title role had a touching, apt fragility. As her father and putative murderer, Agamemnon, Christopher Purves made a very auspicious company debut. Much of the role of her mother, Clytemnestra, lies rather high for Della Jones but, as always, she made the most of all her opportunities. In sunglasses and fake fur trim, she scored a considerable hit. Her appeal to the gods in Act 3 was one of the evening's highlights.
The production scored one invaluable point: we need to see more of this opera. It calls for and deserves to be cast with great singers. Audiences in Leeds and on tour should not miss this rare chance to see a work that is, for once, as remarkable as it is neglected.
n At Leeds Grand Theatre 5, 9 and 11 Oct (0113 245 5326)