Iphigenie en Aulide, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Glyndebourne

Stolen thunder

By Edward Seckerson
Tuesday 28 January 2014 04:15

Wagner paid Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide the supreme compliment of extensively rewriting it. But you can hear why it caught his imagination. Gluck's reformation of opera, driven by the French appetite for singing and dancing on an extravagant scale, attempted to place the needs of the drama before those of the singers. Wagner was not yet born when Iphigénie sojourned in Aulide. He was still not around by the time Gluck transported her to Tauride in a second (and finer) opera five years later. But seeds had been sown. Gluck was dreaming Wagner's dream.

At Glyndebourne, the goddess Diana decrees that an electric storm shall pass through the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and that its bristling string semiquavers, flaring brasses and thunderous timpani shall anticipate the opening of Wagner's Die Walküre some 70 years later. The curtain rises on a series of white frames seen in recessive perspective. The chorus, dressed, it would seem, for a private view at Tate Modern, are crouched behind a lightening-streaked gauze. In the foreground, Agamemnon receives some bad news. He must sacrifice his daughter to appease Diana.

And thus the drama is well under way before even the prelude has run its course. The producer Christof Loy and his designers (Herbert Murauer, sets, Bettina J Walter, costumes) and choreographer, Jochen Heckmann, have devised a show that highlights the opera's "modernity" while almost overcompensating us for its shortcomings. Iphigénie en Aulide is fledgling music-drama in which the emotion is still worn more than deeply felt. In that sense, Loy's sleek, cool, calculated, arrestingly physical staging is no less, indeed probably a great deal more, than it deserves. The energy passing between stage and pit, where the conductor Ivor Bolton's wonderful band have been raised to give the greatest possible immediacy to Gluck's flailing orchestral gestures, is the evening's real driving force. Director and choreographer are more or less indivisible in their contributions; excellent chorus and dancers likewise. A sea of dark figures repeatedly threaten to submerge the troubled protagonists. The will of a god-fearing people is always just beyond the reach of their outstretched hands.

The problem is that Gluck's energy (and subsequently that of the production) is too generalised. Inspiration comes only intermittently – as in Agamemnon's great scena at the close of Act II, in which duty to country and devotion to daughter are wrestled to spine-tingling effect. The commanding Gerald Finley even managed to keep his moustache in place during this number. Similarly, Katarina Karneus's Clitemnestre (dressed in red so you know she's trouble), pleading with Achilles to protect her daughter, finds great dignity in a wonderful aria where the voice finds parity with Gluck's plaintive oboe, and deep sighs in the basses hint at depths hitherto unplumbed. We also hear the beginnings of the Wagnerian Heldentenor in Jonas Degerfeldt's Achilles. Veronica Cangemi's Iphigénie is bright, fresh, and as emotionally truthful as the opera allows her to be.

As a portent of things to come, Iphigénie en Aulide was still distant thunder in 1774. But something happens at the close that Christof Loy seizes upon to give this show an 11th-hour kick. Diana, stepping out finally from the kitsch mythology of our imagination, reprieves Iphigénie and urges the Greeks to "amaze the future" with their glorious deeds. But as the chorus intone their victory hymn against an ominous drumbeat, Loy has us share a vision of Agamemnon striking the death-blow anyway, leaving the prone and bloody body of Iphigénie as a symbol of the innocent blood that will be spilled in his nation's name. Real drama at last.

To 5 July (01273 813813)

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