Iphigénie en Tauride | Pinchgut OperaLeft – Caitlin Hulcup. Cover – Caitlin Hulcup. Photos – Keith Saunders Photography 

For only the second time in the last 20 years, I heard last night a great masterpiece from the Classical period that was previously unknown to me. The other such occasion was John Elliott Gardiner’s performance in Ferrara of Beethoven’s opera Leonora, the early version of Fidelio which is immeasurably superior to its later re-hash. I first heard of Gluck’s Iphigénie operas (there are two of them, the other being Iphigénie en Aulide) from the passages in Berlioz’ treatise on orchestration, in which Berlioz raves about Gluck’s scoring and how it bodies out the emotions of the dramatic situations. I have been waiting almost 50 years to hear it.

I missed the opening of the opera, which describes a storm. But in a sense I had my own storm, my plane landing with truly operatic drama during the ferocious storm Sydney experienced yesterday afternoon and then being held at the gate for over an hour. So I arrived in the middle of things. I was immediately dazzled by the amazingly beautiful orchestral textures, so lovingly handled by the conductor, Antony Walker. The sound of the Orchestra of the Antipodes, when it becomes (as in this production) a classical and not a baroque orchestra, is rich, strange, and unfamiliar to us here. Unfamiliar because in the Antipodes, although performances by period instrument baroque bands are becoming relatively frequent, we don’t have any original instrument classical ensembles. The palette of sounds is broader, of course, with a full period wind section. We are in Mozart’s world – he heard Gluck’s operas in Paris in the late 1770s, and learnt much from them. The dramatic urgency of Mozart’s buffo finales, the intensity of the accompanied recitatives in Idomeneo, the flair for matching the music to the drama – they are all there in spades in Iphigénie.

The opera is about the daughter of Agamemnon, brutal leader of the Greek army which destroyed the noble civilisation of Troy. She has been saved by the goddess Diana from being killed by her father (those ancient Greeks stopped at nothing), and whisked away to the island of Tauris. There she has waited for 15 years for any news from Greece, of her family, her siblings. Her brother is shipwrecked on the island, and is almost killed by the xenophobic ruler Thoas (commandingly sung by Christopher Richardson) and his men, chillingly played as members of Islamic State in this production. It takes the duration of the opera for the siblings to recognise each other – not unreasonably, for when Iphigénie was sacrificed her brother Orestes was a small boy, and they both have reasons for concealing their identity. The story was first dramatised by Euripedes, that great burrower into trauma, and Gluck preserves his intense psychological scrutiny of what happens to the main character throughout the opera. 

The production, directed by Lindy Hume, was in profound sympathy with the messages of barbarity and loss, unfortunately as relevant now as they were in ancient Greece, which imbue the opera. Alistair Trung’s simple but striking costumes, and Matthew Marshall’s unobtrusive but supportive lighting sat well on Tony Assness’ craggy, desert-like set. (Thank goodness no-one wore shoes. The angles are vertiginous, and there was no net over the orchestra to catch anyone who might slip). 

The title role is huge, and Caitlin Hulcup’s performance of it was a true tour de force. She understood every nuance of the emotional fabric of the music. Her voice, mercurially capable of moving seamlessly from deep plangency to tender warmth, and indeed between an array of different feelings, was always true and vibrant, and always true to Gluck’s ideals; at the service of the drama. The arias in the opera are models of concision, (apart from the dream aria in the first scene, which I missed), but at the start of both Acts III (je cède a vos désirs) and IV (Non, cet affreux devoir) she has scenas which, though never flashy, demand a very special range of techniques to bring off. Caitlin Hulcup was mistress of them all.

She was well supported by the other principals, notably tenor Christopher Saunders as Pylade and baritone Grant Doyle as Oreste, both of whom acted superbly. Margaret Plummer sang the role of Diana, the dues ex machina who resolves the situation at the end of the opera, with unwavering, ringing firmness. And the chorus, sung by Cantillation, was, as ever, thrilling, especially the women who, as priestesses of Diana and as furies, have much to do in this work. In fact the single musical moment above all that sticks in my memory is the touching soft chorus which accompanies Iphigénie’s lament (O ciel, de mes tourments) that closes Act II; one of few extended pieces in the opera.

But, apart from the title role, you do not come away from this performance thinking of any individual performer. It is a testament to the integrity of the performance as a whole that the effect is produced by a true synthesis of its parts. Yes, it is worth going to this production just to hear Caitlin Hulcup, or listen to Antony Walker’s amazingly sophisticated direction of the orchestra. (I would swear that he conducts in French! He knows the language so well, every little detail of how the language works is conducted, not just for the singers but for the orchestra too!) But by far the greatest impression is of a seamless, intensely moving, gripping performance of a musico-dramatic masterpiece.

If you haven’t seen it yet, book now. If you have, go again – how long will you have to wait to see it again? Not 50 years I hope, but probably a long time.

Pinchgut Opera presents
Iphigénie en Tauride
by Christoph Willibald Gluck | Libretto by Nicolas-Francois Guillard

Director Lindy Hume

Venue: City Recital hall, Angel Place, Sydney
Dates: 3, 5, 7 and 9 December 2014
Bookings: www.pinchgutopera.com.au

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