From the moment that Susan Graham wafts slowly downstage during the overture, the Royal Opera’s new production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride has a striking, if stark and bleak, beauty. Black is the dominant mood and colour, with no visual relief bar the occasional slash of light which scars the surrounding gloom, entrapping the protagonists just as they are imprisoned by their past actions.
Based on Euripides, it takes up the story of Iphignie, the daughter that Agamemnon sacrificed on Aulis in order to send his fleets off to besiege Troy. Whisked away from the sacrificial altar by the goddess Diana, Iphigénie finds herself installed as High Priestess on the island of Tauris, under the tyrannical rule of King Thoas.
Having murdered his mother Clytemnestra (who in turn had done away with her husband Agamemnon), Iphigénie’s brother Oreste, plagued by the avenging Furies in the wake of his matricide, arrives in Tauris where, unrecognised by his sister, he becomes Thoas’ latest sacrificial victim. What is played out in Euripides’ play and Gluck’s opera is the tumultuous states of mind of these people, each desperately seeking relief from their torments.
Robert Carsen‘s production leaves us in no doubt that Thoas’ kingdom is a savage and unforgiving domain. The chorus act out a repetitive, splashing dumbshow of killing and Clive Bayley‘s king stalks the stage like a Victorian melodrama villain.
Susan Graham, a magnetic stage presence, is simply peerless in French repertoire and this represents a very welcome return for this artist after too long an absence. Her expressive, rich and very beautiful mezzo fills the house, although there were signs of strain at the high end of her register on the opening night.
As the lookalike friends who take male bonding to an extreme, each pleading to die for the other, Paul Groves and Simon Keenlyside exude both masculinity and vulnerability. Keenlyside’s Oreste is like a tortured animal, screwing himself into knots of agony as his psychological furies tear him apart. Ever demonstrative, he levitates and walks across a vertical wall while singing. American Tenor Groves as Pylades sings some of the most lyrical material in the work with great loveliness.
After a far less auspicious Don Giovanni at Covent Garden a few months ago, Ivor Bolton returns to draw an immaculate performance, at once incisive and driving, from the guesting Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
If this is impressive musically and extraordinary visually, the whole performance is also oddly unengaging. With emotions writ so large, it’s difficult to relate to the characters or the situations on a basic human level. Just before the brother and sister reveal their identities to each other, Oreste is moved by the simple compassion shown by an apparent stranger, and we are too. But it is a fleeting moment amidst an unrelenting Sturm und Drang onslaught that is draining to watch.
We are not allowed in to the world onstage but can only look on in wonder, and at times horror, so there is little sense of catharsis or any real involvement. Ultimately, this is a production to be admired rather than loved.