Alvaro, Laurent

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.

PostinoDaniel Catán - Il Postino

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris | Jean-Yves Ossonce, Ron Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Daniel Montenegro, Amanda Squitieri, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Patricia Fernandez, Victor Torres, Laurent Alvaro, Pepe Martinez, David Robinson, Théo Vandecasteele | Paris, France - 30 June 2011

The death of the composer Daniel Catán in April this year, just as the first-run production of his fifth opera Il Postino (The Postman) was being prepared for its performances at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris was undoubtedly a great loss not only to the music world, but to the development of Spanish language opera. Alongside work done by Plácido Domingo, who helped Catán bring this production to the stage, the creation of a new school of Spanish opera was one of the principal aims of Catán, and his ability to do that is demonstrated well in the composer’s final opera. What Il Postino also demonstrates is that Catán’s death is also a great loss to a type of modern opera that can touch on simple but meaningful subjects in a way that is accessible to new audiences.

Those audience-pleasing qualities are already evident in the source material – the novel ‘Ardiente Paciencia‘ by Antonio Skármeta, but even more so from the 1994 film Il Postino directed by Michael Radford - a simple story of a postman on an Italian island who learns about life and poetry from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living there in exile. If the practice of making an opera out of a recent film seems pointless, it’s worth pointing out that opera in the past has always traditionally drawn from the popular entertainments and artforms of its day, whether from popular literature or theatre, and although film does indeed have a rather more “fixed” sense of imagery, it also has many other facets that can be expanded on and explored in opera through other means – primarily musical, but also through a different kind of intimacy through the the theatrical experience. Catán’s Il Postino presents the work wonderfully through this medium.


On the surface however, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in how the opera approaches the subject and how the story is recounted in the film version. The storyline remains simple. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, has been exiled form his home country for his Communist leanings, and has taken up residence on the small island of Cala di Sotto (Neruda was indeed exiled for a period from Chile, but actually lived a short time on the island of Capri, and the story recounted here is otherwise entirely fictional). It’s a poor island, the inhabitants have no running water (despite promises from local politicians), but while his other brothers have left for America to look for work, Mario Ruoppolo remains and is given the job of postman for the new arrival – the only person on the island to receive any mail, and all of it, it seems to Mario, from women. Hoping to gain some understanding of this power that Neruda seems to have over women, and observing his close, sensual relationship with his wife that Neruda has immortalised in poetry (Desnuda – “Naked”), Mario hopes to gain some tips from the great poet. With Neruda’s instruction in the use of metaphors and some borrowing of ideas and actual lines from his work, the postman is able to win the love of Beatrice Russo, the beautiful girl that he has seen working in the local bar.

The opera follows the original film closely, working in short scenes. Catán states that he went back to Skármeta’s source novel in order to bring out the political dimension that is just as important in a consideration of Neruda, his life and his work, but it still remains very much in the background to the fictional love story and the friendship between Neruda and the Postman. What does come out more – and surely justifying the film being made into an opera – is the depth and force of those relationships, which are beautifully sketched in scene by scene, and how they tie into the nature and rhythms of life. These are wonderfully evoked in the libretto and in the music which clearly bears the marks of the acknowledged Puccini and Debussy influences on the composer. The intention is to find the right expression for each scene and emotion, and if that means it evokes other composers, it’s no less effective for it. What helps it is the fluidity with which one scene flows into the next, each building on the previous to deepen the characters, the emotions and the connections between them. The flowing stage design – directed by Ron Daniels – capturing a sense of sea and clouds, carries us smoothly through the first two acts which are the main body of the production.


The libretto is also of vital importance since, when you get right down to it, the opera is essentially about the power of words. They appear on the screens behind and in front of the performers throughout, and, as a Spanish opera, it couldn’t be more important to have the poetry and the sound of those words expressed and highlighted in this way. Words, poetry, sun, sea and clouds are all there in the original film, but what gives them another dimension of expression and – most importantly – what brings them all together, is the power of the music and the singing, and on those fronts, the opera is most persuasive. The themes and their presentation in this respect also reminded me of Richard Strauss – another influence on Catán – particularly Capriccio which considers the construction of words, music and theatre in opera perhaps from a more academic viewpoint, but in intent, Il Postino is also about the individual power of each of these elements combining in a way that gives its subject the best means of expression.

The singing in this production could hardly be faulted. Daniel Montenegro sang well in the the role the part of Mario Ruoppolo on the night I caught the performance (sharing the role in this run in Paris with the equally fine Charles Castranovo), with a fine clear lyrical tenor that befitted the role and differentiated it from the deeper tenor of Domingo. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs made a strong impression as Neruda’s wife Matilde, and the other main female roles of Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) and her mother Donna Rosa (Patricia Fernandez) were also well cast, bringing different tones of light and shade to the singing and to the characteration. It helps too if you have someone as charismatic and still as powerful and emotive a performer as Plácido Domingo in the main role of Neruda, but the singer is also a voice for Spanish opera and it is wonderful to hear him express the rich poetic resonances of the words in the libretto so masterfully in his native tongue. It’s a wonderful role, trailor made for him and he defines it utterly. If Il Postino is to succeed in the future – and one would like to think that it has the necessary qualities that would see it more widely performed – it will need an equally charismatic presence in that role, but that will surely follow.