Gluck, Christoph Willibald

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Aulide/Iphigénie en Tauride

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Marc Minkowski, Pierre Audi, Véronique Gens, Salomé Haller, Nicholas Testé, Anne Sofie von Otter, Frédéric Antouin, Martijn Cornet, Christian Helmer, Laurent Alvaro, Mireille Delunsch, Laurent Alvaro, Jean-François Lapointe, Yann Beuron, Simone Riksman, Rosanne von Sandwijk, Peter Arink, Harry Teenwen | Opus Arte

You don’t see productions of Iphigénie en Aulide coming along very often, or indeed much of C.W. Gluck’s works these days which, considering the importance of the composer to the world of opera, is something of a mystery. Even more rarely do you see it paired the way it is here at the De Nederlandse Opera with its sister work Iphigénie en Tauride, but the two works are perfectly complementary. Composed at different times with a different approach to Gluck’s reformist agenda, they were perhaps never intended to be performed together, but the pairing of the two works side-by-side like this at least allows those differences in approach - so important to the progress and development of the traditional form of the modern opera - to be better appreciated. And at a time when you can see numerous complete productions of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, there’s no reason why Gluck’s smaller scale and more intimate take on a related Greek mythological story shouldn’t also be seen in this kind of staging.

As it happens, the intimacy and relative simplicity of the work make Gluck’s two Iphigénie operas rather more difficult to stage by a company with the resources to take it on in a relatively large modern theatre. Those challenges are taken on by Pierre Audi, the artistic director of De Nederlandse in the setting of the Amsterdam Music Theatre, while the musical challenges of presenting the works is placed in the experienced hands of Marc Minkowski and his remarkable period-instrument ensemble, Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. The difficulties in presenting the two works aren’t entirely overcome by the innovative approach employed here - playing largely in the round, compressing the drama into a small area at the front of the stage and putting the orchestra at the back, with the chorus section arranged oratorio behind them - but it’s a staging that works well in as far as it draws the full dramatic power out of the works. Which is what Gluck is all about really.

The subjects may be classical ones from Euripides, but by getting right back to basics of dramatic situation and expression, Gluck was able to find deeply human characteristics - love, anger, betrayal, vengeance - in mythological situations that elevated those feelings and emotions by placing them in the grander picture of questions of war, honour, duty, fate, destiny if you like, or the will of the Gods. There’s consequently an intimacy as well as an epic quality that gives Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride immense power. They are stories of great simplicity and utmost gravity, and they require little more - as Pierre Audi recognises here - than a few strong images and symbols to help define their essential characteristics and at the same time serve to link them together. In Iphigénie en Aulide, the image and the notion of a blade (an axe here) pressed to a daughter’s breast by her father in an act of sacrifice to the goddess Diana, is one that resonates throughout the whole work, influencing and directing the complex emotions and family issues that arise out of this terrible and tragic situation. In Iphigénie en Tauride, the image of sacrifice and family tragedy is also central to the work, Iphigenia now a priestess of Diana and about to unwittingly execute her brother Orestes, who (as any good opera goer knows from Strauss’s Elektra) has been involved in a situation that has seen him take bloody justice upon their mother Clytemnestra for the death of their father Agamemnon.

Pierre Audi does reasonably well to give dramatic action to the poetry of the libretti in both works, retaining the intimacy of the emotional focus, while at the same time finding a way to project that out to an audience at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. He does that by reducing the size of the stage, focussing in on a central area flanked by scaffolding staircases that is emphasised here on the filmed recording by some overhead views of a circle that from one scene to the next can represent a sacrificial altar or a pit. It’s not much to look at, and the costumes are far from classical, the colours, materials and camouflage patterns emphasising the military aspect of the Greek-Trojan war background in Iphigénie en Aulide, although Iphigénie en Tauride is a little more traditional in the gowns of the priestesses- but it’s sufficient to hint at the greater sequence of events that set these dramas into motion without over-dramatising or over-emphasising actions over the expression though the words, the singing and the music.

And that perfect balance is precisely what Gluck’s reformist agenda set out to achieve. It’s hard then to fault the presentation and the careful equilibrium that is maintained by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble in conjunction with the stage direction and the singing. I’m not as familiar with Iphigénie en Aulide as I am with Iphigénie en Tauride, but it’s clear by the spirited orchestral performance of the latter, wonderfully expressive, delivered with controlled ferocity in places even, that the music director has taken into consideration the relative merits of the two different approaches that the individual works represent and dealt with them accordingly, using each to highlight, contrast with and complement the other. In the case of Iphigénie en Tauride, I’ve heard it performed with more beauty and lyricism by William Christie and Les Arts Florissantes (in a Claus Guth production on DVD), but never quite so forcefully in a way that integrates it so well with the musical drama.  Both works are performed moreover on period instruments tuned to the original pitch.

The singing is also strong in the performances of both works, with only Salomé Haller’s Diana common to both. Iphigenia in Iphigénie en Aulide is sung and performed marvellously by Veronique Gens with her customary attention to detail and the requirements of Baroque opera singing. There are no mannerisms and no exaggeration by any of the performers, who treat the work with the necessary dramatic gravity and sincerity. Surprisingly, as she is such a wonderful singer of Gluck, and has even recorded the role of Clytemnestra in this opera before, only Anne Sofie von Otter seemed underpowered and unable to match the intensity of the performances.

In Iphigénie en Tauride, Iphegenia is sung by Mireille Delunsch, a soprano in a role that is more often sung by a mezzo-soprano. More than just capably sung, Delunsch has a nice tone and timbre that suits arrangement here and proves to be strong enough to make the necessary impression. The casting for this work however favours and puts more emphasis on the fate and the friendship of Orestes and Plyade. Orestes is sung wonderfully by Jean-François Lapointe, who not only bears a certain similarity in appearance to Bryn Terfel but also has a comparable voice. Strong, with clear diction and good expression (if a little stiff in acting), he certainly makes more of an impression as a true baritone than Plácido Domingo did at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago. He also works wonderfully off Yann Beuron’s excellent Pylade, the two combined bringing another dimension to the work.

The presentation on Blu-ray is strong with a clear, bright and detailed image. The audio mixes, on account of the acoustics, are a little bright and echoing, losing focus in the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix. The PCM track through headphones however reveals the qualities of the sound and the performances very well. As well as two full-length operas on this release, there are also two 20-minute Behind the Scenes Introductions on the BD, one for each opera, and Cast Galleries. The booklet contains an essay and two full synopses. The BD is All-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Dutch and Korean.

OrfeoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Festival Castell de Peralada, 2011 | Gordon Nikolić, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Anita Rachvelishvili, Maite Alberola, Auxiliadora Toledano, Aline Vincent | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As an avant-garde experimental theatre group, continually expanding their techniques using the modern technology available, La Fura dels Baus don’t exactly do opera in a way that is respectful of tradition. With modern works that are less than respectful of the opera tradition itself - Weill’s anti-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or Ligeti’s anti-antiopera Le Grand Macabre - this can be a good thing, but it’s more questionable when applied to the works of reformist composers who had very specific ideas and theories about the nature of opera as drama. With the grand works of Wagner, on the Ring cycle and even with something like Tristan und Isolde, there is perhaps more scope for a more ambitious conceptual approach, but can the extravagant modern techniques and projections employed by La Fura dels Baus really be appropriate to a work as intimate and intentionally stripped-back to basics as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice?

Orfeo ed Euridice was indeed the first of Gluck’s reformist works, but it would only really be in its later French incarnation Orphée et Eurydice (alongside the composer’s other important French operas Alceste and Iphigenie en Tauride), that many of the mannerisms of the Baroque opera seria were dropped. Gradually, Gluck’s works would forego the use of the harpsichord, ballet music, mechanical stage effects, recitativo secco, extravagant aria da capo singing or indeed any decorative effects that didn’t serve the progression and meaning of the drama alone, but some of these elements still remain in this first version of Orfeo et Euridice, the Vienna version from 1762. Still, it would seem to go against the spirit of a work that only has three principal roles - and the majority of it sung by only one person - to stage it as extravagantly, colourfully and spectacularly as it’s done here, using every technological tool available - projections, computer generated lighting effects, singers hanging from cables above the stage - as well as making every effort to fill the ample outdoor stage of the Castell de Peralada not only with chorus and supernumeraries, but even putting the orchestra up there on the stage as well. This surely wasn’t what Gluck intended.

Well, that depends on whether what is up there on the stage enhances the work or detracts from it, and while Carlus Padrissa goes a little overboard on special effects - he’s rather too fond of hanging singers above the stage from cables for my liking - it seems to me (as someone who holds this work in its varied incarnations in very high regard as one of the greatest works in all of opera) that everything works nonetheless in perfect accord with the music, the singing and the dramatic intent of the original work. There’s no reason why spectacle and dramatic purpose can’t co-exist. While Cupid might swing down a cable to a position above the stage then (a stunt-double is used while Auxiliadora Toledano sings off-stage), it can be seen as appropriate to elevate the messenger of the gods above the mortals below. Perching Orpheus on top of Eurydice’s stone monument could also be seen as being a little over-the-top, but the use of the same block as a tombstone to chart his descent into Hades and his ascent out of it with Eurydice, is also a relatively simple but highly effective image. It’s in the depiction of the dark fiery landscapes of Hades, the assembled masses of Furies, shades and spectres, the serene beauty of the Elysian fields and the visions of the Blessed Spirits however that the director’s vision most impressively rises to the challenges in the score with some inventive techniques, projections and lighting effects that work hand-in-hand with what the music and the drama are telling us.

The orchestra, dressed in unflattering skin-tight body suits sitting in small individual pits on a stage that is tilted towards the audience, play their part in this too. Their position leaves only a diagonal space for the funeral procession of Eurydice in Act I, which makes it look like Padrissa is simply just trying to just fill the stage and keep it visually interesting, but they also get up and move around, playing at the same time, during Act II’s descent of Orpheus into Hades. It may not be what Gluck had in mind exactly when he set about making music serve a purely dramatic function, but one could argue that the music of Orpheus does indeed have a function in fending off the Furies, and highlighting that element in visual terms is a valid technique. It is at least not just some random concept that distracts from the meaning, but is clearly one that comes from paying close intention to the drama itself, and seeking to find the best way of illustrating it. Much like Gluck did when composing the work 250 years ago, La Fura dels Baus’ production represents the same kind of modernisation of stuffy theatricality and musical academicism that the composer was reacting against, showing that opera is capable of being the most invigorating of theatrical experiences.

Whether Gluck’s score really needs all this spectacle, or whether it isn’t more than capable of being perfectly expressive in purely musical and more traditional dramatic terms, is of course debatable. I’d be less inclined to look favourably on this production if the spectacle detracted from the musical and singing performances, or if it was weak in those areas, but fortunately this is a superb account of the 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s not ideal of course to have the conductor Gordon Nikolić wandering about on the stage, leading as the first violin, and there are some minor lapses in timing when the singers don’t have visual contact with the pit, but for the most part the music, the singing and the drama all come together marvellously to pure dramatic effect to express the full power of this remarkable work. Considering the challenges then, the singers perform admirably. Anita Rachvelishvili carries the burden of the work as Orpheus well, correctly focussing on the delivery of the singing here - which isn’t always easy - and letting the score and the staging carry the dramatic intent and nuance. Maite Alberola is a powerful Eurydice, working well with Rachvelishvili dramatically and musically in their combination of voices. Auxiliadora Toledano has a wonderful brightness of tone that serves well in her role as Cupid and messenger from the Gods.

I’ve been critical of Carlus Padrissa in the past (notably for the misguided concept in the La Fura production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens), but it’s evident here from the scale that this Festival Castell de Peralada production of Orfeo ed Euridice is intended - as it should be - principally for the audience in the theatre. This presents some difficulties for the video director Tiziano Mancini, who is forced to resort to some extreme angle post-production on-stage shots, editing effects and cross-cutting, but by and large, it gets the full impact and the dynamism of the stage production across well on this Blu-ray release. The HD video transfer is superb - colourful and pinpoint clear, with good sound reproduction in PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region playable, with subtitles in Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

TelemacoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe

Theater Basel | Anu Tali, Tobias Kratzer, Freiburger Barockorchester, Tomasz Zagorski, David DQ Lee, Agneta Eichenholz, Solenn’ Lananant-Linke, Maya Boog, Christopher Bolduc | Basel, Switzerland - 24 June 2011

Gluck’s Telemaco, ossia L’isola di Circe (Telemachus, or Circe’s Island, 1765) comes at an interesting point in the composer’s career that has historical significance as well as great musical interest for its place in the opera repertoire. Written during his Italian period, while the composer was still forming his ideas for the reform of opera, Telemaco (dramma per musica in two acts) sits between two important operas (Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste) that – in their later French revisions at least – would transform opera, taking it away from empty stylisations and displays of vocal virtuosity towards a more dramatic form of opera as we know it today. The groundwork towards this reform can already be clearly seen in the lesser-known Telemaco.

Even though it still adheres largely to the opera seria form, with drama played out in semi-recitative and fluid continuo (with no harpsichord), the traditional longer arias express the emotions felt with some repetition, but there is nonetheless a restrained simplicity to the arrangements and a clear focus on the drama, with no unnecessary da capo adornments. Most of all however, there is a sense in Telemaco of the wonderful humanism that Gluck is able to find in the human drama unfolding in this particular episode of Homer’s Odyssey and in how he brings it out through the music with a naturalness and fluidity. That’s wonderfully apparent in the playing of the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Anu Tali (a rarity seeing a female conductor in the pit) at this production for the Theatre Basel in Switzerland.


Tobias Kratzer’s staging for this production boldly went for a few modernising reforms of its own, seeing Odysseus as a WWII fighter pilot who has been brought down and is now held captive with his crew by Circe on a tropical Pacific island. The opening scene where Penelope receives and rejects her suitors in a late 1940s drawing room in Ithaca, Odysseus having been missing for six years, is then violently transformed into a jungle, vines bursting through the walls as Telemachus vows to go in search of his father and bring him home. Played as a dual role, Penelope quick-changes into Circe, the madame of an Asian brothel, Penelope’s ladies in waiting dropping their knitting and stripping down to sirens in slips that hold Odysseus and his men in their power.

Quite what the intentions were in the modernisation, in closely relating the two worlds and in the division of Penelope/Circe is difficult to judge (this is a very rare opera and I can find no recording of it in existence, or even an English synopsis of the original libretto – although the subject is a familiar mythological one, done many times in opera), but it certainly creates an interesting contrast to consider. What is less in doubt however is the ability of the music and the singing to draw the human drama out of the story.


As Odysseus, Tomasz Zagorski was a strong and commanding tenor, with clear Italian diction. In the alto-castrato role of Telemachus, Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee came into form wonderfully in Act II during his vision of the death of Penelope, bringing out the full extent of the nature of his character and his conflicted feelings. Agneta Eichenholz was a little inconsistent as Penelope and Circe, but the dual-role is clearly a challenging one. The heart of the opera however would seem to lie in the character of Asteria and in her relationship with Telemachus. It’s in her transformation from a nymph through her love for the son of Odysseus, and coming to be recognised as a sister by Merione that the most powerful and human moments are expressed in the opera, and Maya Boog captured that wonderfully, particularly in her heartbreaking Act II aria, but it was also evident in the fine ensemble work of the cast and the chorus as a whole.

Composed as a commission for the Hapsburg monarch and Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II and his wife Maria Josepha of Bavaria, who had just come to power after the reign of his mother Maria Teresa and attempt to usher in modernising reforms, there are evidently parallels and guiding principles brought out in Gluck’s Telemaco (much in the way Mozart opera seria La Clemenza di Tito was written for Leopold II in 1791), but regardless of the setting in antiquity, in the time of Joseph II, or in post-WWII, the qualities and strengths of this rare opera are timeless and still relevant, as is Gluck’s prototypal vision of the modern dramatic opera.

IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins | The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011

It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.

Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.

It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.


Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.

The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.