Cher Public

Mourning becomes Iphigenia

Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1774), the occasion of his Paris debut, gets far less respect than her sequel, Iphigénie en Tauride, composed five years later at the apogee and conclusion of Gluck’s career. Aulide has never been staged by one of New York’s professional opera companies, for instance, and when it does turn up, it’s sometimes in Richard Wagner’s German-language revision of the score—fascinating but hardly the genuine article.  

If you love Gluck’s classicism and wish to hear Iphigénie in its proper tongue and something like its original style, you might with considerable pleasure attend one of the remaining semi-staged performances, Thursday or Saturday, at the Peter J. Sharp Theater.

It is being given on the Met+Juilliard series, a collaboration of the school and the Lindemann Young Artists Program, which gave us a fine account of Gluck’s even nobler (and rarer) Armide a couple of seasons back. The orchestra is Juilliard415, an “original instruments” ensemble (no valves on the brass! no spikes on the gambas! and, naturally, tuning at 415 Hz) led by Jane Glover, a longtime specialist in eighteenth-century opera with a firm dramatic pace and a strong cast of poised, attractive young voices.

Gluck is nowhere near so widely performed as he deserves to be. Early opere serie (Ezio, Telemacco, Demofoönte) and short comic pieces (Der betrogene Cadi, L’ivrogne corrigé) are enjoying a comeback of late, and the half-dozen great “reform” operas of his later decades are always admired, usually in their absence.

They are marked by a stately declamation that moves almost unmarked between accompanied recitative and emotionally pointed aria. There is no room for the repetition and florid vocal display that filled most Italian opera at the time.

When anyone mentions Iphigénie, it is usually Tauride they mean. Why does Aulide get shorter shrift? The score is majestic and melodious, high-minded to a fault but not without passion for its tormented characters to express. Wagner knew a good thing when he revised it for unGlucklich taste.

I think it’s a book problem, a simple story elaborated to the point of clutter. Tauride is a hit because it follows a single sharp dilemma, sharply worked: two characters do not realize they are siblings, Iphigénie the priestess and Oreste the chosen sacrifice.

Will she slay him before they figure it out? (In that family, anything can happen.) Extraneous figures and events draw matters out to a full evening, but nothing distracts us from the question poised by the tense plot.

Aulide’s dramaturgy is, comparatively, full of distractions. This time Iphigénie is herself the intended sacrifice—but she hasn’t a clue. Her father, Agamemnon, moans about his paternal sorrows, then disappears until it’s nearly Act III. In ignorance, Iphigénie (having heard silly rumors) accuses Achille of infidelity and is all kinds of romantically upset.

She breaks their engagement, Achille protests, Clytemnestre rejoices or broods—none of this has anything to do with the real story. The drama does not hurtle to a climax, it ambles down the scenic route.

Then, instead of Euripides’ sublime and bitter conclusion—his Iphigenia offers herself for her people—the goddess Diane appears, pardons everybody and commands a wedding. Does this mean the Trojan War will not take place, as Jean Anouilh would have put it?

At Juilliard, the strength of the cast, the pleasure given by their smooth and well-schooled voices, their ability to declaim clearly in not-too-mushy French, is a constant joy.

Ying Fang portrays a deceptively fragile Iphigénie with gliding phrases, but she can proceed without apparent effort into powerful despairs that compete with, ultimately override, the orchestra. The plot has her hurt by just about everyone, and her gentle suffering and clarity of tone held our sympathy.

Virginie Verrez sang the other major role, Clytemnestre, with a wide-ranging and subtle mezzo, a wife and mother undergoing disillusion. Her “Par un père cruel” was especially moving.

Andrew Stenson, the evening’s Achille, took some time to warm up, but I attributed a crack or two in his tenor to his shock at Iphigénie’s groundless reproaches. The link between a graceful upper register and excellent chest support is something that still needs work, but he showed promise, an Arnold and Enée some years hence, capable of letting warm feelings glow through Gluck’s formalities.

Baritone Yunpeng Wang, the Agamemnon, mostly knit his brow to imply the anguish of a frustrated father, but his tormented climactic monologue drew cheers.

In small roles that did not give them nearly as much to do as they deserved, we heard Liv Redpath as Diane, Angela Vallone as a tuneful slave, Brandon Cedel as the dignified (not, as usual, devious) Calchas, who brings Agamemnon the bad news, Takaoki Onishi as Patrocle and Sava Vemic as Arcas.

Arcas is a nothing role, but Vemic’s few phrases made the whole house sit up, just as he did in the similar role of Raleigh in the OONY Roberto Devereux last spring. Somebody give this guy an aria, for gosh sake; I want to hear where he takes it.

With the orchestra at the center and the chorus along the sides of the stage, David Paul had his hands full trying to indicate the conflicting story lines of the opera. The acting of his singers, as they drew into themselves to consider events, then put on public faces to encounter each other, were well achieved.

He (or lighting designer Paul Hudson) also lit “offstage” figures like Agamemnon and Clytemnestre at the far corners of the stage when they were in the minds of those singing in the foreground, keeping us mindful of them as well while the layers of deception were slowly uncovered.

Photo of Ying Fang by Arthur Moeller

  • Milady DeWinter

    Very cogent review of a work that is hard to get vested in. Now I know why -- thank you! I’m afraid my only reference IS the 1972 (Wagner-ized) set auf Deutsch mit Moffo (in rather good “broken down” form, imo) and Fischer-D. This makes me want to hear the “correct” one. I suppose the version with Lynne Dawson and Sophie v. O is the one to get -- there aren’t that many to choose from.

    • Bill

      Once in a while there is a major production of
      Iphigenie en Aulide in a prominent opera house.
      It was done at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1962
      in a massive producion in the Felsenreitschule
      in a Guenther Rennert Production conducted by
      Karl Boehm -- being outside more dramatic singers
      were utilized than might be considered appropriate
      today, Inge Borkh, Christa Ludwig in the title role, James King, Walter Berry, Otto Edelmann. The
      Vienna State Opera mounted a production in 1987
      conducted by Charles Mackerras with Bernd Weikl, Joanna Borowska (instead of Benackova), Gundula Janowitz (Clytemnestre), Thomas Moser. Julliard
      itself did it a decade or so ago fuly staged and
      one could have seen it at the Theater an der Wien and most recently in 2014 somewhat cut and coupled in a Double Bill with Iphigenie auf Taurus which was quite interesting (and a long Gluck evening).

      The new production at Met + Julliard was actually deftly staged (by David Paul) with the orchestra
      on stage and the characters generally emoting and singing in front of the orchestra out of sight of the conductor, Jane Glover, who very sensitively
      crafted the music into a wonderful natural flow of
      fluid sound. The small Chorus was on risers in
      in the back or on the extreme sides and from where
      I was sitting in the orchestra accoustically seemed
      to flow a it over our heads -- and in Gluck the chorus is of the utmost importance both musically and dramatically --

      What was so fascinating in this rendition of the opera was not only the high level of the soloists
      vocal performance but also in their ability to
      project the emotions of the music in hand in their body movements and most importantly in their expressive faces. There are many mood changes as the story progresses and it was a great pleasure to
      observe artists who could act out there roles (in
      street dress) so effectively

      Vocally, the shining light of the performance was that of Ying Fang (Iphigenie) whose lovely bright lyric soprano blossomed gorgeously. Her voice is precisely even throughout the range (the role is not taxing on high or in the lower depths), her French attractive, her movement graceful -- one can envision a lovely Pamina as her legato is flawless and certainly she would be superb in parts such as
      Haydn’s “Creation” -- every utterance of this young Chinese soprano was of highest quality

      The Clytemnestre, Virginie Verez who hails from France, had the strongest vocal instrument of the cast, but was able to pare down the sound to ideally blend in the ensembles -- she also imparted considerable emotion in a dificult role and cut an elegant figure in her movment and anguished expression

      Brandon Cedal has a lovely fluid baritone and one can envision him someday as an ideal Barak in
      Die Frau ohne Schatten -- the voice is also of some size, very sonorous, though the role does not test the full range of a Bass-Baritone. He sang with gusto though not with every possible vocal -- sill a glorious sound poured out.

      The first singer one hears is Agamemnon, the Chinese Baritone Yungpeng Wang, an agile voice, quite lovely at times. His ws the most active character on the stage and he was brilliantly able to express his
      sorrow and anquish with agile stage action and a plangent tone

      Andrew Stenson, the tenor Achille, most reflect a slightly more difficult range of singing -- his voice was generally fine, he seems to have brilliant
      breath control in some long held higher notes -- and he has the high notes in his pocket. Not a perfect performance vocally but worthy of the cast which was of a very high quality for a performance with a mixture of some Julliard students and some who have graduated to the Met’s Lindemann program.

      Of the other singers the Serb Sava Vemic has a firm and solid if somewhat gravelly bass which can boom out forcefully. Takaoki Onishi did not really have enough to sing to showcase his attractive baritone voice. Liv Redpath was placed way back behind the orchestra as Diane who appears at the end of the opera who blesses everyone to a happy end

      For lovers of Gluck this series of 3 performances in New York is a must see -- for those curious, it will be an enlightening evening which showcases some of the young singers the Met is caring for and preparing for the assumption of important parts
      for the future. Tickets are $40 in the orchestra and $ 30 in the Balcony so a relative bargain.

      It was great also to encounter Parterre’s own Marshiemark !! who is involved in the Lindemann program and one of its sponsors, the Hildegard
      Behrens Foundation. He seems to know everyone in the Audience and feted the event with hefty applause as we all did. Don’t miss one or the other of the two final performances this week (or both!)

      • marshiemarkII

        Bill what a wonderful and detailed review of a most sublime night. Besides what you write and Kruno calling her “Amazing” and “Divine” what else is left for me to say?!?!!??!?!?! I guess I have been OutMarshied!!!! :-)

        Anyway, Qs! you have one more chance to see this most sublime music tomorrow, this is truly glorious glorious music, and seminal music at that, as it made possible some of the greatest masterpieces we are more familiar with. And Ying Fang is just SUBLIME!!!!!! what a glorious and evenly produced sound, aligned with incredible sensitivity and musicality, divine creature indeed!

      • The “double bill” was also done in Brussels in 2009, in a Pierre Audi production and conducted by Rousset.

        En Aulide: Agamemnon: Andrew Schroeder. Clytemnestre: Charlotte Hellekant. Iphigénie: Véronique Gens. Achille: Avi Klemberg. Patrocle: Henk Neven. Calchas: Gilles Cachemaille. Arcas: Werner Van Mechelen. Diane: Violet Serena Noorduyn.

        En Tauride: Iphigénie: Nadja Michael. Oreste: Stéphane Degout. Pylade: Topi Lehtipuu. Thoas: Werner Van Mechelen. Diane: Violet Serena Noorduyn.

        • Buster

          The revival in Amsterdam was filmed. Great night -- a moving Véronique Gens, the fury of Anne Sofie von Otter showing in her smallest gesture, and a deeply tragic Mireille Delunsch, who was ill during the entire run, suffering from terrible back pains, and the flu. Great Minkowski. Lots of walking up and down those stairs though, but I realized afterwards that if you lived in Ancient Greece, and wanted to go to a church or a palace, or listen to a philosopher, you probably were climbing stairs all the time. The coupling in itself I found not very convincing -- the operas are too different musically. Certainly Gluck never intended them to be combined on one evening:

        • Cicciabella

          Seconding Buster that the Gluck double bill was great music-making in Amsterdam. I had no idea Delunsch was unwell: she was heart-rending. It was the first time I was astounded by Von Otter, a singer I greatly admire but whose live and recorded performances had previously left me rather cold. Minkowski was in superb form, and all the leads very strong. I wonder if it all translates into DVD.

          • To me, at the time, Tauride came off better than Aulide.

            • Krunoslav

              TAURIDE is unquestionably the better drama and, I think, score; but Marshie is right that AULIDE has wonderful stretches and was a key source text for IDOMENEO--and that the overture adumbrates DON G and FIDELIO as well.

              Both great but quite different, though. I once saw a clumsy, failed attempt to combine them into one work at the Maliy in Leningrad, back in the Brezhnev era, to which Putin has returned Russia.

  • le cerf agile

    A fascinating review of a piece that for me (as for Milady DeWinter, apparently) has never been quite as compelling as some other Gluck operas. One minor and pedantic point: I’m presuming the reference to the Trojan War not taking place alludes to “La guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu,” which is by Jean Giraudoux rather than Jean Anouilh.

    • manou

      Un cerf non seulement agile, mais aussi érudit! (Un cerf-veau?)

    • Grane

      Uncas, my childhood hero…

  • Krunoslav

    “The superb British conductor Jane Glover, who was so impressive in Gluck’s “Armide,” a collaboration between Juilliard and the Met in 2012, drew a refined yet urgent account of the score from the impressive players of Juilliard415, the school’s period-instrument ensemble.”

    This from the TIMES.

    Didn’t anyone else feel that the conducting was in fact the least impressive element in view in Juilliard’s AULIDE? Dr. Glover gets applauded as an icon, but in this case (on Tuesday) the orchestra was as rough and uncoordinated as i have ever heard it, with string tone often approximate.

    • Bill

      Apparently the young Chinese soprano, Ying Fang, who
      was so impressive in the title role of this Iphigenie en Aulide at Julliard is the latest
      recipient of the Hildegard Behrens Foundation Award
      for 2015. This was announced by the Foundation’s
      director Dr. Gaston Ormazabal just this week.
      We see also on another thread from Kunoslav that Ying
      Fang has been cast as Susanna in the upcoming
      Figaro performances in April at Julliard.
      I now recall seeing Ying Fang as a very melodious
      Zerlina at Julliard a couple of years back --
      obviously a talent to be watched. Is the Met
      listening for the future ? -- we have had a spate
      of not really top notch lyrical Mozart sopranos
      in the Mozart lyrical roles at the Met in recent seasons (hard to fathom) and this Ying Fang, if
      her voice is able to carry in the spacious cavern which is the Met, might be a life saver as
      Susanna, Pamina, Zerlina, Despina and Ilia at the Met (also as Marzelline if the Met would ever
      revive Fidelio) if this fine soprano is not
      tempted to become an “Ensemblemitglieder” at the Vienna Staatsoper or in Germany where she, if she opts for something like that, might have more opportunities for cautious but steady advancement.
      Clearly a voice to watch for the future.

      • DellaCasaFan

        Re: Ying Fang
        Her Barbarina almost stole the show at the Met’s “Figaro” last fall.

        • Bill

          DellaCasaFan -- some Barbarinas do move up to be
          outstanding artists -- i.e. Lucia Popp,
          Gundula Janowitz, Wilma Lipp, Emmy Loose, Arleen
          Auger, Edita Gruberova, Ildiko Szabo Raimondi, Tatiama Lisnic, Ileana Tonca just from the Vienna Opera alone. Anyone from the Met ?

          • DellaCasaFan

            I’m looking at the Met archives right now and it looks like the Vienna Staatsoper has a better record with Barbarinas. The exceptions are Teresa Stratas and Roberta Peters, both assuming the role in their early Met careers. Peters sang it concurrently with her Zerlina, Queen of the Night, Rosina, but Stratas did it along with other smallish roles in her early days.

            • la vociaccia

              We must not forget that -for better or for worse- Barbarina put Danielle DeNiese on the map when she sang it as her first assignment in the Lindemann program

            • Krunoslav

              Other Met Barbarinas who moved on to leading roles:

              Hei-Kyung Hong
              Joyce Guyer
              Kathleen Kim
              Emily Pulley
              Heidi Grant Murphy
              Dawn Upshaw
              Lyubov Petrova
              Gail Robinson

      • Krunoslav

        ‘also as Marzelline if the Met would ever revive Fidelio”

        Once Nadja Michael figures out how to take off all of her clothes instantly at ‘Tot’ erst sein Weib!’, they’ll revive it.

  • Grane

    I only heard the Nozze broadcasts on Sirius, but of the women, in both casts, only Ying Fang really wowed me. Looking forward to hearing more of this beautiful soprano. I presume she was perfectly audible in house?

    • marshiemarkII

      Granisssimo, the voice is one of the most gloriously projected voices I’ve heard, right into your ear!. It is of course a decidedly lyrical instrument, but it is a large sound and incredibly even and with a lot of “body” to it, it is a dense and creamy sound, nothing squeaky about it like a more typical lyric soprano. I can’t wait for the day when she and Layla Claire sing Nozze together! a DREAM cast if there ever was one! And Ying will in a day not too far off will be a glorious Contessa also, she has plenty of voice for that and a lot more with time and experience. By God she is only 27 yo, and is so tiny and beautiful that you wonder where does so much voice come from!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • marshiemarkII

      Oh and what I meant to say regarding your question, of course she projects gloriously at the Met, I heard her at the Opening Night, in a not so great seat in the Grand Tier and she of course stood out compared to her colleagues who were inaudible at that seat! and I have heard her in a number of things, Adina with Mario Chang for example, at the Peter Sharp and she is always projecting gloriously wherever I’ve sat. It is a truly amazing instrument!

  • Hippolyte

    Caught the final Iphigenie today and am frankly surprised at all the hosannas for what was (at least today) a fairly lackluster performance. Primary culprit was the ever-placid Jane Glover’s drab handling of Gluck’s marvelous score and a really off-form showing by J415 which I have heard play much better this season. I would normally have regretted the cutting of both of the score’s gorgeous passacailles; however, the omission of the shocking war-mongering final chorus was a real black mark.

    Ying Fang was indeed ravishing but she was a bit too ethereal – Iphigenie as a flesh-and-blood woman in love with Achille is more moving. Andrew Stenson continues to impress and the lower voices were fine.

  • Bill

    Hippolyte -- went again on Saturday to Iphigenie and
    for the first half sat in the second to last row
    of the Balcony (as opposed to 5th row Parterre at the
    Tuesday opening performance.) Up high the chorus
    projected better though early on the first sopranos
    were not perfect -- one could also judge the orchestra
    with more clarity from the Balcony -- the strings seemed
    a little weak -- the conducting of Jane Glover
    more or less emphasizes the lyrical aspects of the work and she seems to conduct (with a score which
    she rarely observed except to turn pages) with a great deal of affection for the piece -- if not dramatically
    as if the work was a forerunner of Medea or Fidelio
    but more lyrically in the Classical Tradition.
    We must remember the orchestra seems to be made
    up of quite young people -- students ? It is not the
    Vienna Symphony nor the Arnold Schoenberg Chor both of which were so splendid at the Theater an der Wien
    in Vienna October 2014 Iphigenies. In general I thought that this third performance was not as totally splendid as the first of the three but perhaps in part due to the lack of novelty and wonder on my part.

    That said Ying Fang in the title role was quite
    similarly impressive both performances (I moved back to the Parterre for the second portion as there were some empty seats) with
    a truly spectacularly beautiful lyric soprano voice
    (maybe not much different from the young Seefried who sang the same role in the very early 1940s in Aachen
    with von Karajan conducting) -- one can look forward
    to Fang’s Susanna at Julliard in April as she is rumored to be doing that role. As to voices alone,
    Brandan Cedel has a most melodious baritone sound --
    he could modulate the volume a little more at times’
    but his role of Calchas does not require as much
    emotion as say Agamemnon handled well by Yunpeng Wang.
    While on can quibble about one thing or another
    one can only rejoice that the Met + Julliard has
    given the New York audience an opportunity to see and hear this breathtaking Gluck opera (the first of his
    reform operas) in a performance which had many
    highlights and showcased (but did not stretch) young singers some of whom we can expect to hear regularly
    in the next decades in major opera houses. If the recent Met’s trio of ladies in Don Giovanni were as wretched as reported recently on Parterre then this
    Iphigenie and other performacnes (Gotham Opera Company etc) illustrate that there are young singers available
    who will eventually certainly be better able to match and perhaps even surpass what we would traditionally
    expect at the Met and sometimes these days do not always get.

    • Hippolyte

      But Juilliard had already given New York an opportunity to see this work--just 8 years ago in fact. I saw a staging at the Sharp in February 2007 by Robin Guarino with a cast of young singers including Paul Appleby as Achille and conducted by Ari Pelto--it was a good deal better than what I saw this weekend.

  • Bill

    Hippolyte -- I saw all three of those Julliard performances though did not remember the singer’s names. It was fully staged with costumes -- the orchestra was in
    the pit not on stage -- it was a little edgier musically
    than Jane Glover’s rendition (and the ticket prices were lower if there was any
    price at all). -- maybe $ 10). This opera justifies
    many hearings (though I marginally prefer Iphigenia auf Taurus) so one opportunity 8 years ago should not
    be a once in a lifetime event and for young students
    and artists Iphigenie is not a voice breaker, but a good test of legato, vocal expression, lyrical singing with dramatic impulses and not taxing in length for any of the characters.

  • marshiemarkII