Iphigénie en Tauride

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Last night to the first night of Pinchgut’s production of Gluck’s opera.

It was always my intention to go but as I missed the initial booking rush in July (I was in China) I then wavered in the face of a lack of desirable seats and financial retrenchment. At the last moment I summoned up resolve and just after 2pm on the day picked up a seat in the first side balcony.

In fact there were plenty of seats unsold in the rear balcony and on the third level – perhaps the cheaper seats needed to be cheaper, at least at the last minute. The stalls, in comparison, were well-filled, though sponsors friends and the free list must may have accounted for a fair portion of that. [Edit in response to comment below from Liz Nielsen.]

From where I sat, the ends of the lines of the text, projected in translation to the back of the stage, were obscured by the set. “Will there be an end to our tea?” someone asked at one point (or something like that). Context or leaning forward usually supplied the missing portions.

It was “tears” (of course).

There is cause for plenty given the unhappy family history in question. Iphigenia is in Tauris, whence she was spirited many years ago by Diana/Artemis when her father, Agamemnon, prepared to sacrifice her to ensure a fair wind to Troy. (That was Gluck’s earlier Iphigenia in Aulis). Meanwhile, there’s been the Trojan war, Agamemnon has been murdered on his return by Clytemnestra, his wife, and then Orestes, his son, has killed him in revenge. (That’s Elektra.)  Orestes comes to Tauris (not sure if this is in the libretto or you are just expected to know this) in response to an omen which he has interpreted as urging him to retrieve an image of Diana: he doesn’t know that the prophecy really refers to Iphigenia, whom he believes dead.

Gluck’s watchword, once he embarked upon his operatic “reforms,” is said to have been “beautiful simplicity.” Musically, that meant a move away from coloratura and the floridity of the da capo aria, as well as the banishment of the secco recitative (there is still some arioso recitative accompanied by the full orchestra). Along the way, instrumental obbligato solos mostly fell away and he generally uses the wind instruments chorally or doubling the strings for texture.

Critics at the time said that the simplicity was required by Gluck’s own technical limitations (Handel said Gluck had no more idea of counterpoint than Handel’s cook) but even if so, that still leaves the “beautiful” as well as the dramatic integration which was Gluck’s other professed aim – even if someone else actually wrote his most famous pamphlet advocating all of this.

“Beautiful simplicity” is also a necessary virtue of Pinchgut’s approach to staging. It keeps the costs down and also meets the limitations of Angel Place’s stage. This production was effective in that regard, especially the chorus of priestesses of Diana (was it the design or did we have a pregnant priestess in their midst?), who together with Caitlin Hulcup in the title role also had the best of the music and the action.

I wasn’t so convinced by the semi-automatic-wielding Taurideans, who were given faintly ISIS-ish headgear (in which case, why not swords?). Given their intention to kill any stranger arriving on their shores, they could more tellingly have been got up as Australian border security guards, and their king, Thoas, instead of looking like Russell Brand, could have been Scott Morrison. (That’s Thoas in the foreground of the picture above, via Limelight – the pictures, probably taken at the dress rehearsal, don’t quite live up to the reality and the suspended microphones are less intrusive in the flesh.) Something like that might happen in a state-subsidised German opera house: I doubt Pinchgut is in a position to upset the horses or sponsors in that way. (cf Opera Australia’s timid steps in that direction in its last production of Nabucco.)

At the end, when half the male chorus had to become Greek this was done by a simple and effective device. This was one scene which became a bit of a scramble.

Coming to the work new, it took me a while to realise that the chorus in what looked like a nightmare sequence with Orestes were intended to be the Eumenides.

Even before I checked the cast list, it was easy to guess who was the costume designer amongst the production staff when they took their bows: not only did he have the best outfit but it looked as though he’d whipped it up from offcuts from the men’s chorus costumes.

I enjoyed it and in many ways it was a revelation. As it wasn’t a comedy, I’m glad to say that even though he sat close to the stage, harpsichordist Erin Helyard’s bald/shaven dome remained unmolested.

I’m not a critic. Clive Paget’s review in Limelight is generally spot-on. If I had to single out anyone for particular praise it would be Hulcup (a triumph), the women’s chorus, the orchestra and conductor Antony Walker. It is always good to have him back.  That’s probably taking Lindy Hume, the director, for granted but it is harder for me to estimate her contribution.

Pinchgut do four performances within a week. Sunday’s is booked out. That starts at 5pm and looking at audiences these days it is clear that early starts hold an attraction for many not to mention that for others coming into town at 5pm on a Sunday will be much easier than for 7pm on a weekday. It will also be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Sunday night and I certainly intend to listen then.

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2 Responses to “Iphigénie en Tauride”

  1. Liz Nielsen Says:

    Dear Marcellous,
    Thank you for writing about Pinchgut. Can I just correct an incorrect theme that runs through your comments. You mention sponsors and invited guests filling the stalls. In fact we have no commercial sponsor and we are very mean with comps. Our loyal audience lines up on the first day of sales to get those stall seats.
    Also we are completely independant and have no fear of upsetting horses or sponsors. Most of our money comes to us from our loyal Heroes of Pinchgut and our audience buying tickets. Our one guiding principal is to do the best by the music. Our audience has followed us, and sustained us, for fourteen years from one rare opera to the next.
    Glad you are part of that audience and that you care enough to write about us.
    Liz Nielsen

  2. marcellous Says:

    Liz, I still expect you’d be wise to be cautious before embarking on anything too contentious – “to do the best by the music” probably leads to the same result.

    Glad to hear you are mean with comps though judging from the number I saw still awaiting collection at interval maybe still not mean enough – unless you give me one, in which case my attitude would instantly change but I certainly would not let it go uncollected.

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