There can be very few cities to have seen two different stagings of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride within the last three years, but Toronto, luckily, is one of them.  Opera Atelier gave the 1779 opera its Toronto professional premiere in 2003 and remounted the work in 2009.  Now the Canadian Opera Company, that staged its very first Gluck just earlier this year with Orfeo ed Euridice, has launched its new season with Robert Carsen’s production from 2006 owned by several companies.  The production features gorgeous singing from the principals and the chorus.  Visually, however, it’s stultifying.

Carsen’s production employs a concept that I have seen far too often and have never found satisfying--namely, to present an opera or play deliberately in a visual impoverished, or in this case, oppressive setting, with the sole goal of setting up a visual transformation at the very end.  We had an example of this technique just earlier this year in the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos, when the entire opera-within-the-opera was played on a tatty, cobbled-together set, only to be whisked away in the final moments to reveal a star-strewn vista.  The problem is that director Neil Armfield in the case of Ariadne auf Naxos and Carsen in the case of Iphigénie has sacrificed visual interest during the entire course of the opera for a single theatrical effect at the end.  Such a sacrifice is not worth it.  It is unfair to the audience and to the opera.

Tobias Hoheisel’s design for Carsen’s Iphigénie is particularly stark.  The set consists of the floor and three sides of a black box.  In this modern dress productions, all the women, including Iphigénie, are barefoot and wear identical black, plain, one-piece dresses.  All the men wear black--long-sleeved shirt, trousers, belt--and are barefoot when meant to be vulnerable or socks and shoes when not.  Oreste and Pylade, the foreigners, are not distinguished in dress from the others.  Thoas wear a large black coat to show his authority but his men wear identical black coats when accompanying him.  Needless to say, watching a production entirely in black on black for the majority of two hours is extraordinarily tedious.  The design necessarily forces us to focus on the performers’ faces and hands, but even then Carsen has the principals sing facing away from the audience at key moments.

The meaning of the box is clear.  Iphigénie, her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade find their lives still constrained by the curse on the house of Atreus.  Oreste believes that Iphigénie has been sacrificed by her father Agamemnon at Aulis, not knowing that Diana substituted a simulacrum for her and whisked the girl to safety in Taurus.  Now Thoas, ruler of Tauris has had a dream that he will be killed by a foreigner and so commands any new arrivals be sacrificed.  Of course, Oreste and Pylade are the first foreigners to arrive after the decree.

The meaning of all the black is clear.  Gluck wanted to reform opera to bring it back to the simplicity of the Greeks and the opera is a tragedy, albeit with a happy ending.  Yet, even the Greeks were never as stark as this.  They plays took place in the daylight and they and used colourful three-sided periaktoi to indicate change of place.
Carsen has placed the singing chorus in the pit and uses a chorus of dancers on stage to generally confusing effect.  When they lie on the ground it’s unclear whether they are asleep or dead.  The priestesses can suddenly turn into the Furies who pursue Oreste as can the prone populace into snakes.  At the end when the people are supposed to be rejoicing, Iphigénie is surrounded by seemingly dead bodies and Oreste and Pylade who ought to be celebrating with her and each other rush away from her in opposite directions.  It does not make sense.

Fortunately, the singing of Susan Graham in the title role is magnificent.  Not only is her voice warm and radiant but she has a beautiful sense of line and breathtaking command of dynamics.  Russell Braun in fine voice throws himself into the role of Oreste with even more intensity than usual, giving the most naturalistically detailed performance on stage.  As Pylade, Joseph Kaiser appearing at last again in Toronto after achieving fame elsewhere, has a wonderfully passionate, multihued voice ideal for the character.  Carsen does not go as far as Opera Atelier in depicting Oreste and Pylade’s true passionate relationship and thus places Pylade too often in the situation of trying to get close to Oreste, who repeatedly casts him off.  Thoas is Mark S. Doss, who wields a sepulchral bass and a vibrato that tends to obscure his diction.

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, last on the podium for Nixon in China, leads the COC Orchestra in traversal of the score with a very narrow dynamic range, as if the work were all forte and fortissimo.  He does attempt to lighten the orchestral texture but he is not as successful at this as Harry Bickett was in Orfeo, and in general the sound remains overly heavy.

If one has to compare the OA and COC productions there is simply no doubt that the OA production is far superior in storytelling and in eliciting a wider range of detailed acting from its performers that makes their changing emotional states much clearer.  While it wonderful to see such performers as Graham, Braun and Kaiser in such fine form on stage they may as well be performing the opera in concert given the clothes they wear and the box they stand in.  One feels that they, like their characters, are trapped by an oppressive regime that inhibits rather than supports full enjoyment of their gifts.

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