Saturday 22 March 2008

Iphigénie en Tauride, Komische Oper, Berlin, 21 March 2008

Komische Oper Berlin
(sung in German, as Iphigenia in Tauris)

Iphigenia – Geraldine McGreevy
Orestes – Kevin Greenlaw
Pylades – Peter Lodahl
Thoas – Jens Larsen
A Greek woman – Karen Rettinghaus
Diana – Erika Roos
A Priestess – Mirika Wagner
A Scythian – Matthias Spenke

Barrie Kosky (producer)
Klaus Grünberg (designs)
Alfred Mayerhofer (costumes)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Komische Oper Berlin
Daniel Mayr (chorus master)
Paul Goodwin (conductor)

Handel is notoriously said to have declared that his cook knew more about counterpoint than Gluck did. This may or may not be so: I am not sure that we know anything about the cook’s contrapuntal skills and it is true that Gluck’s art is rarely contrapuntal in nature. That said, whatever the musical beauties of Handel’s operas, themselves hardly overflowing with contrapuntal devices – his oratorios are another matter – Gluck’s reform operas, which Handel could not in any case have known, are vastly superior as musical dramas. Gluck may not be the greatest of composers considered in a purely musical sense, but as a musical dramatist he is one of the greatest – as Berlioz and Wagner both recognised. The problem has been that opportunities to appreciate this in the theatre, at least in remotely satisfactory conditions, have been few and far between. With this extraordinary production, the Komische Oper may have helped to change that.

If Gluck’s reforms are in many ways a prelude to Wagner – note the number of times Gluck is cited in Wagner’s Opera and Drama – then this production took seriously the claim of Iphigénie en Tauride to be considered as a Gesamtkunstwerk. (This connection was perhaps heightened by the fine German translation, credited to Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze. I recalled the Gluck-Wagner Iphigenie in Aulis, and much to my surprise barely registered the loss of Nicolas-François Guillard’s original text.) Production and musical performance – melded into a single act, without a tension-breaking interval – clearly worked in tandem. Barrie Kosky, as a fascinating programme interview made clear, is clearly that rare thing: a producer with musical understanding. He was therefore fully able to work in the spirit of the celebrated, landmark preface to Alceste, ascribed to Gluck but actually penned by his librettist, Ranieri Calazbigi:

I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments; and I believe that it should do this in the same way as telling colours affect a correct and well-ordered drawing, by a well-assorted contrast of light and shade which serves to animate the figures without altering the contours. Thus I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello … nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. … I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain. … Furthermore, I believed that my greatest labour should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity …

Beauty, simplicity, ‘naturalness’, reason, and above all dramatic truth are the order of the day. Style and idea are identical; or at least such is the claim.

This is not to claim that there was anything unadventurous about Kosky’s production; nothing could be further from the case. From the moment the curtain rose, we knew that we should be in for a rough ride: our first sight was that of a prisoner hanging upside down, swinging from the ceiling. After the brief minuet, ‘Le calme,’ Gluck plunged us straight into the drama by an orchestral storm, both real and representative of Iphigenia’s inner demons from her dream: psychoanalysis almost beckoned. (The ghosts of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and others would appear later on, observing and sometimes participating as elderly men and women, the frailty and degeneration of their bodies powerfully highlighted in their underwear.) Louis Petit de Bachaumount had written of the première in his Mémoires secrets: ‘The opera was much applauded; it is a new genre. It is really a tragedy … in the Greek style.’ Gluck, it seemed, had discovered the ever-elusive ‘secret of the ancients’. If so, it was renewal rather than restoration, and so it also proved in Berlin. Welcome to the Abu Ghraib of Tauris, in which Iphigenia and her priestess are compelled under threat of death – visited summarily upon those who demur – by Thoas’s regime to accomplish many of its murders. The Scythian-American soldiers, kitted out in costume designer Alfred Mayrhofer’s camouflage fatigues, prefer to spend their time in more inventive forms of violence, such as the ‘degrading’ torture – is there a non-degrading form? – of the newly arrived Orestes and Pylades, hooded, stripped to their underwear, urinated upon, with cigarette butts forced up their anuses. Other soldiers take photographs for private or public consumption. (Now where have we heard of that before?) This then was an urgent drama for today, and Gluck’s music – often seen as being purely Classical, whatever that might mean – was more than equal to the task of its expression, not least in the Scythians’ menacing choruses. Yes, they could sing as well as act.

This went for the rest of the cast too. The tyrant himself was given an almost – but not quite – larger-than-life treatment by Jens Larsen. His participation in and incitement of the orgy of violence was truly shocking. Geraldine McGreevy in the title-role perhaps sounded a little shrill at times, but hers was a powerful music portrayal. One felt almost infinite compassion for her and for her predicament. As her brother, Kevin Greenlaw was also very fine; his baritone and stage presence seemed ideally matched. Peter Lodahl was perhaps the best of all as Pylades. His is a beautiful tenor indeed, whose tones tugged on the heart-strings, but this was always at the service of the drama, never preening. There was a touching, simple innocence at the heart of his portrayal, which was just what Gluck – and the production – required. The homoerotic nature of his relationship with Orestes was apparent – how could it not be? – without being emphasised, for this production had other concerns. At the musical helm was Paul Goodwin, who presided over an urgent, which is not to say unduly frenetic, account of the score. Here, and this was surely encouraged by the production, there was no question of treating Classical music with kid gloves; this was Calzabigi’s music restored to its ‘true office’. Yet this was not a restriction but an opportunity to explore profound psychological depths. Every section of the orchestra was on top form in the opening storm, its driving strings and furious woodwind having their roots in Rameau but blazing a trail towards Berlioz. This continued relentlessly, not least in Gluck’s richly orchestrated recitatives, until the deus ex machina of Diana. If I went out of my way to find something at which to cavil, I might opt for this. She did not appear on stage, which is fair enough, but her voice sounded amplified. This sounded not so much other-wordly as crude. No matter: this remained a visceral account of a great opera.