Gluck: Iphigenia in Tauris
Susan Graham (Iphigenie)
Russell Braun (Orestes)
Joseph Kaiser (Pylades)
Mark Doss (Thoas)
Lauren Segal (Diana)
COC Orchestra and Chorus
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Robert Carsen, director/lighting designer
Peter Van Praet, lighting designer
Sandra Horst, chorus master
Four Seasons Centre, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. 2011
by Joseph K. So
At the end of the COC season opening Iphigenia in Tauris on Thursday, a good number of audience members spontaneously rose to their feet cheering, a response that grew within a few seconds to a complete standing ovation from virtually the whole audience. It was gratifying to see the enthusiastic reception of a "concept production" by the essentially conservative Toronto audience. This Iphigenie clearly shows that the Toronto audience is ready and willing to accept and appreciate a creative re-imagining as long as it's logical, coherent, and most of all, one that serves the composer and the music. With this production, Carsen brings into clear relief that one doesn't need opulent scenery or super-realism to capture one's imagination.
Like Carsen's Orfeo which was arguably the gem of the 2010-11 COC season, this Iphigenie eschews the trappings of grand opera, instead focusing on the emotional core of the work. It's a tale of love, death, loyalty, and self sacrifice, with a famously dysfunctional family serving as the backstory. Given its unrelenting darkness, Carsen's approach is austere and barren, with an overwhelming use of black colour interspersed with streaks of red indicate violence or blood. The stage is empty except for the three walls, with the names of the three principals - Iphigenie, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestre - written in white chalk. At one point, Orestes is scrawled in red on the stage floor. The chorus sings from the pit while a group of supernumeraries (dancers) inhabit the stage, mimicking the movements of the principals. The women are costumed in long, black, flowing dresses with the men in black shirts and trousers, not unlike what musicians would wear in a concert performance. A very significant element of this production is the use of lighting, often in such a way that casts ominous shadows on the walls. In fact, the aesthetic of Iphigenie strongly echoes the Carsen production of Ariadne auf Naxos in Munich which I saw twice in the last three years. Given that both shows were premiered within a year or two of each other, it's understandable that Carsen recycled some of his ideas.
With a production that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, it is essential to have capable singing actors who bring to their roles not just beauty of voice but strong dramatic presence. In this respect, COC could not have assembled a better cast. Susan Graham is the definitive Iphigenie of our time, having sung it to great acclaim in many important venues including the Met, Covent Garden, and Paris. Her luminous high mezzo, capable of a wide range of colours, was a pleasure on opening night. As Orestes, Canadian Russell Braun sang with extraordinary dramatic intensity and vocal abandon, his warm and expressive baritone conveying touching pathos. I have seen Braun plenty of times on stage, both in opera and in recitals. To be sure, his performance here reaffirms him as one of the very best singing actors in front of the public today. Joseph Kaiser, last heard in Toronto ten long years ago when he was a baritone in the COC Ensemble, was a clarion voiced and totally believable Pylades. The two men are physically rather alike and their voices blended beautifully. Incidentally, many productions of Iphigenie, notably Opera Atelier's a few years back and the famous Glimmerglass-Francesca Zambello production starring Nathan Gunn and William Burden back in the late 1990's, have a certain gay sensibility in the relationship between the two men, something that is totally absent in the Carsen production. As Diana, former Ensemble mezzo Lauren Segal took full advantage of her very brief moments to shine. If there was a weak link, it was the rough-voiced Thoas of American Mark Doss, but even that was in character.
The highly choreographed Carsen staging places extraordinary physical demands on the singers, and particularly on the corp of dancers, who were well rehearsed and up to the task on opening night. The set design with the three walls helps propel the sound forward towards the auditorium, making everyone sound big even when singing upstage. If one were to quibble, this production must be seen from a relatively central position in the house, as much of the important action is obstructed for those sitting at the extreme sides. The COC orchestra with its modern instruments, rich strings and vibrant brass isn't really a baroque band, but visiting Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado was able to draw authentic sounds from the pit. The invisible chorus gets the short end of the stick in this production, but they sang beautifully nevertheless under concert master Sandra Horst. Given the high artistic values and its stellar cast, this production of Iphigenie is surely the envy of many opera companies around the world. Sadly, there were many empty seats on opening night. Hopefully with favourable word of mouth in the press, Torontonians who value the operatic art form and are interested in artistic excellence will go to see this show - it's just about as good as it gets.