The San Francisco Opera's final performance of Gluck's "Iphigenie en
Tauride" tonight provided a rare experience. It was not just a whole
exceeding the sum of its parts - it was a total triumph that made its
parts virtually immaterial, the kind of event when you stop taking notes,
and just give in to the magic.
Beyond the magnificent work, beyond a great performance, the essence
of Greek theater (the source of "Iphigenie," complete with ever-losing
battles against the gods, mayhem, suffering, deus ex machina - the
marvelous Heidi Melton as Diane - and, yes the brightly-lit release
from the darkness at the end, and with it, catharsis), permeated the War
Memorial. It was more than entertainment or a performance or another
opera - one felt back in an amphitheater of antiquity, at one with the
community, at a kind of religious ceremony, breathing together, being
utterly silent for two and a half hours, and then exploding in a wild
Gestalt, fusion, call it what you will, the ultimate "Iphigenie en
Tauride" turned out to be the ultimate in operatic experience. The
components: Gluck's powerful, weighty, "important" music, directed
superbly (if not flawlessly) by Patrick Summers; the Opera Orchestra
at its best; Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus beyond its best - scary in
its greatness: shaded, powerful, otherworldly in turn.
The claustrophobic, black-on-black Robert Carson production is
overwhelming: it sets up the work for the "religious ceremony" that
evolved. The writing - and erasing - of names on the walls is a risky
idea, but it worked. Jean Michel Criqui's stage direction, with Phillipe
Giraudeau's breathtaking choreography, Lawrence Pech serving as ballet
master, and Jonathan Rider's fight scenes all came together.
Above all, of course, came wave upon wave of "that music" from the
pit and the stage, relentless, dramatic, moving, Summers marshalling
great forces, maintaining tempo, balance, dynamics with consistency...
except, and that's why the "not flawlessly" caveat appears above. In
two fast-and-furious great arias in the first act, by Thoas (Mark S.
Doss) and Oreste (Bo Skovhus), Summers "stepped on" the singers, had the
orchestra pace the music instead of allowing the vocal line to lead. It
was disappointing (especially as those two arias happen to be personal
favorites), but "immaterial."
Being picky again - with the repeated acknowledgment that it didn't
matter - "our" Susan Graham, who sings Iphigenie so musically, so
gloriously, is somewhat underpowered for the role. The ideal voice would
have more heft and edge, perhaps even a bit of Electra-like "ugliness"
- and great diva that Graham is, she cannot begin to sound ugly. Doss
too could have used "more," but Skovhus turned in one of his best, most
consistent performances here, and Paul Groves' Pylade was marvelous.
Adler Fellows and soloists from the chorus all did their parts - parts
that were exceeded by an unforgettable whole. I noticed a group of very
young people in the audience nearby, looking for all the world as if
they were nervously getting ready for their first opera. Not one peep
out of them all evening, eyes glued to the stage, all caught up in the
event. It might have been their first opera, but assuredly, they will
come back many times, in search of a similar experience; it may take a
long time to recapture the feeling, but it's a worthwhile quest.
[A personal note: I regret forwarding yesterday a letter published in
the S.F. Chronicle, which dragged this production through the mud. It
didn't work well in China, but the idea of "letting a hundred flowers
bloom" is a good one, except when the grower is a blooming idiot. To
give this scent some air was my - and the Chronicle's - bad.]
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