Picture format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic
Sound format: LPCM Stereo 2.0 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, French, German, Dutch, Korean
Running time: 229 mins (operas) + 39 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs: 2 (DVD9)
R E V I E W:
GLUCK Iphigénie en Aulide.1 Iphigénie en Tauride2 & • Marc Minkowski, cond; 1Véronique Gens (Iphigénie); 2Mireille Delunsch (Iphigénie); Salomé Haller (Diana); Nicolas Testé (Agamemnon); Anne Sofie von Otter (Clytemnestre); Frédéric Antoun (Achille); Martijn Cornet (Patrocle); Laurent Alvaro (Arcas/Thoas); Jean-François Lapointe (Oreste/Calchas); Yann Beuron (Pylade); Netherlands Op Ch; Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble • OPUS ARTE 1099 (2 DVDs: 229:00) Live: Amsterdam 9/7/2011
& The making of “Iphigénie en Aulide”; “Iphigénie en Tauride” (38: 00)
This two-DVD set documents an unusual evening in the theater, with both of Gluck’s Iphigénie operas being given on one night as a double bill. The risk of mounting such a project is great, not least because these operas are very draining on both cast and audience. The fact that Marc Minkowski was able to pull this off was due in no small measure to the intelligent casting, which duplicated only two singers in both operas: Salomé Haller as Diana and Laurent Alvaro, who sings the small role of Arcas in the first opera and Thoas in the second.
For those unfamiliar with these Gluck operas, they represent somewhat different styles despite their similar subject matter and the fact that they were only written five years apart. Gluck’s growth as a creative artist in those five years was phenomenal, almost as stunning as Igor Stravinsky’s growth between the first and last acts of his opera The Nightingale. In Iphigénie en Aulide, although he already has a firm grasp of the new musico-dramatic structures he had created, he was still operating in an essentially lyric vein. There are strophic arias and all of the recitatives are orchestrally accompanied, which gives the music a remarkable sense of unity that was very rare in those days, but by 1779, when he wrote Iphigénie en Tauride, his sureness of handling drama through music had grown to its full maturity. The later opera, even from its opening notes, has a much greater thrust and impetuosity in both the orchestral and vocal writing than was present in the earlier opera. This, then, presents director, cast, and conductor with another challenge, which is how to reconcile the differing styles of these operas in one night’s performance.
Pierre Audi’s direction is singularly arresting and brilliant despite sparse sets and updated, somewhat ridiculous costumes. We see Iphigénie and Achille singing to each other in trench coats; when Iphigénie appears later in the first opera, she is wearing a bomb belt on what looks like a prom dress and a greasepaint X on her forehead to indicate that she has been marked for death. Calchas, the High Priest, looks nerdy in a blue suit with shirt open at the collar and horn-rimmed glasses—and, of course, we get our ubiquitous mostly-naked guy in tight slacks (who turns out to be Arcas). In act II, Agamemnon appears in a carnival cruise ship captain’s outfit, complete with dorky hat and a little winged emblem on it (and sunglasses…don’t forget the sunglasses, even though the stage is nearly as dark as pitch). In short, the costumes are rather ridiculous. The set, such as it is, consists of two high but narrow staircases on either side of the very small stage. Yet to Audi’s credit, he directs around this nonsense to create a dramatic presentation that is both interesting and appropriate to an updating of Greek theater. One can almost envision these singing actors performing their roles in more conventional costumes and sets, and their portrayals are dramatically apropos as well as fascinating to watch.
As for the singers in the first opera, pride of place goes to Nicolas Testé as Agamemnon. He possesses a large, well-focused voice that can even negotiate a trill, and his acting is superb. Nearly as fine are Véronique Gens as Iphigénie and Frédéric Antoun as Achille. Both have smallish voices of the sort that Gluck undoubtedly wrote for, yet they are pointed and carry well and their duets are a joy to the ear. Less impressive is Jean-François Lapointe as Calchas, whose voice has a flutter and an insufficient low range for the role. Anne Sofie von Otter, quite frankly, has little or nothing left of what was once a lovely if small voice. Twenty-plus years of singing, including several roles too large for her, have left the voice wobbly and hollow-sounding. She lacks volume even in so small a theater as this one that De Nederlandse Opera performs in. Her acting as always is spot-on, but I’m not listening to her just for acting. I want some voice, too.
Yet through it all, holding everything together, is the golden thread of Minkowski’s conducting, so that in the end one feels justified in going through this experience for his sure-handed leadership. One of the virtues of hearing a conductor this gifted is his way of knitting everything together so that chorus-recit-aria-vocal ensemble all flows seamlessly and naturally, with appropriate dramatic peaks when called for. Besides, it’s such a rare treat to actually see a production of any Gluck opera nowadays that I can almost overlook von Otter’s vocal faults and the silly costumes. Even in the earlier Iphigénie opera, one can clearly hear Gluck’s musical innovations and—more importantly for us today, with 20/20 hindsight—how much these innovations impacted the music of Cherubini, Spontini, Berlioz, and eventually Wagner. This is especially evident in those orchestrally accompanied recitatives: With their brief, almost blunt melodic thrusts, they stab into the listener’s ears in such a way that they convey the impetuosity of the characters. How ironic, then, that the “bel canto boys,” Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti, turn recitatives back into semi-parlando mush in the early decades of the 19th century. Listen—for just one small example-to the way Agamemnon sings of his daughter, whom he loves, and the tender accents that Gluck imparts to the orchestra behind him, using soft winds; then, immediately after, as he thinks of the sacrifice he is about to make, the tempo doubles and short, stabbing strings cut into his words. This is writing of pure genius. There is no other way to describe it.
The one demerit one can make against Gluck (and, specifically, his librettist) is that they whitewashed the story in order to provide a happy ending. In reality, Agamemnon had no guilt pangs or second thoughts about sacrificing his daughter, and in fact Iphigénie was killed to appease Diana; but by changing the ending of the story, Gluck was not only able to send his audiences home whistling a happy tune but also to manufacture out of thin air the “legend” that Diana took Iphigénie to her home island of Tauride, where the unfortunate girl spent much of her time doing what her father wanted to do to her: killing—oops, sacrificing—strangers who landed there to the goddess. Fabricated the story may be, but Gluck turned it into one of the most riveting operas ever written.
After a rough beginning, in which her voice is unsteady and very nasal, Mireille Delunsch brings it into clear focus and gives a good account of Iphigénie. Mind you, her performance here will not efface memories of Carol Vaness or Susan Graham, but it’s very fine on its own merits. As in the first opera, Minkowski’s conducting is just spectacular—he really “drives the storm” that opens this opera with intense fury—and again he manages to knit together the various scenes into a cohesive whole. Here, too, the staging makes even more sense that it did in the first opera, and except for Thoas (Laurent Alvaro) wearing a modern-day military uniform (what the heck is it with Regietheater directors and military uniforms? If they want to wear one so badly, just put it on yourself and leave the characters in their traditional garb!) most of the costumes here make much more sense. Sadly, Alvaro’s voice is consistently unsteady despite a bright timbre and his high notes covered and nasal. In short, he’s a poor choice for a role that requires long stretches of singing that are powerful and call for dramatic focus. The two priestesses, Simone Riksman and Rosanne van Sandwijk, are splendid, but the smaller male roles are sung rather pitifully.
Happily, our Oreste (Lapointe) and Pylade (Yann Beuron) are quite fine, which is important because from the point of their entrance onward they get the lion’s share of the singing. The staging of Iphigénie’s aria in which she grieves for her dead family is very well sung and staged, but I question the need to have Thoas come sneering into the picture to kiss her at the end.
Suffice it to say that Minkowski uses “original instruments” (or facsimiles thereof) as well as lower pitch (whether the A=409 supposedly used by French court tuner Pascal Taskin in 1783, the A=407.9 used a few years earlier, or Mozart’s A=421 I have no idea…these people really get hung up over this stuff), which makes the music sound at least a half-tone lower than you’re used to it from any A=440 performance, but to me this is all a moot point. It’s the performance that matters, the feeling and intensity of the playing and singing, not which tuning fork was used.
My lone complaint on packaging is that the booklet does not break down the operas by scenes, thus if you’re skipping ahead to catch a specific aria or scene you’ll have to guess. I’m not sure why they didn’t do this; I’ve seen it in almost every other opera DVD I’ve ever reviewed.
Having now given detailed descriptions of the performances, we reach the point where one rightly expects an endorsement or a rejection. I find myself divided on this issue, however. Audi’s direction, the conducting of Minkowski, and the singing of some, but not all, of the principals are certainly first-rate, but then we are faced with those cluttered staircases and inappropriate costumes (not to mention the substandard singing of Alvaro as Thoas). On the other hand, knowing how much the world (and particularly Europe) is in the thrall, I might even say the iron grip, of Eurotrash, could you really expect to someday see better productions with equally good direction, singing and conducting? The only other Iphigénie en Tauride on DVD is the one originally issued by Kultur in 2006 but now on Arthaus Musik 100377, which features the rather strained singing of Juliette Galstian as Iphigénie and yet another idiotic production, with people in giant masks following or mimicking the principals. Overall, I tolerated the Iphigénie en Tauride better because of the finer costumes and Delunsch’s generally well-focused singing, but you may prefer great audio recordings of these two operas. The best, indeed the only great, recording of the first work is the German-language performance from 1962 with Inge Borkh (Klytemnestra), Christa Ludwig (Iphigénie), James King (Achilles), and Walter Berry (Agamemnon), conducted by Karl Böhm, on Orfeo 428962, while the now-classic Muti recording of the second opera with Carol Vaness, Gösta Winbergh, and Thomas Allen (Sony Classical) is still the benchmark.
Iphigénie en Aulideby Christoph W. Gluck Performer:
Anne Sofie von Otter (Mezzo Soprano),
Véronique Gens (Soprano),
Salome Haller (Soprano),
Nicolas Testé (Bass)
Netherlands Opera Chorus,
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Period: Classical Written: 1772-1774; Vienna, Austria
Iphigénie en Taurideby Christoph W. Gluck Performer:
Yann Beuron (Tenor),
Mireille Delunsch (Soprano),
Laurent Alvaro (Baritone),
Jean Francois Lapointe (Voice),
Salome Haller (Soprano)
Netherlands Opera Chorus,
Les Musiciens du Louvre
Period: Classical Written: 1778-1779; Vienna, Austria
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Do Not Miss this SetMay 19, 2013By Steven Mitchell Freedman (Raleigh, NC)See All My Reviews"The music is overwhelmingly splendid. The singers in both operas are top drawer. The production is a bit peculiar but the music and the singing are so amazing that the oddities grow on you. These operas penetrate the ancient tales so magnificently that they breathe new understanding to the listener of the stories. Mark Minkowski has done it again. This is one spectacular set of operas you should not miss."Report Abuse