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Iphigenia in Tauris at Seattle Opera - Thrilling production will amaze
Iphigenia in Tauris at Seattle Opera - Thrilling production will amaze
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer Seattle Opera has long excelled particularly in the presentations of the operas of Wagner. Perhaps we should now add Gluck. Years ago, its production of Gluck's more famous Orfeo ed Euridice became one of the finest the company has ever staged. Now comes Iphigenia in Tauris in a production that simply astounded me on every level.

The last opera of Christoph Willibald Gluc (premiere, Paris Opera, 1779), Iphigenia in Tauris can be a very static opera, with a whole lot of very sad and agonized music. Indeed, as often presented, it can come across as a bit silly and boring, much as SO Director Speight Jenkins first experienced it. A DVD I have from the Zurich Opera is overall not bad but at times borders on boring, especially in all the woeful singing by the soprano that begins the opera.

Thus it was with great amazement that I found myself not just engaged but absolutely thrilled by nearly everything I saw and heard in Seattle Opera's current production. (It runs through October 27th at McCaw Hall.)

Musically, visually, and dramatically, there was absolutely nothing static about what we witnessed. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow led the orchestra in some of the most passionate and yet delicately nuanced playing I have heard in McCaw Hall. Textures, timbres, and dynamics sounded like the best of "early music" ensembles. Even the theorbo could be clearly heard, lending a special flavor that I think has never before been heard at Seattle Opera! And the singers were no less in tune with Wedow's punch and precision.

The music of this opera does not leave one whistling memorable tunes upon first hearing. But tunes there are! It's just that they are woven into a fabric that seems to flow seamlessly from emotional recitative to emotional aria, with equal weight to both, so that the arias often sneak up on you, and, before you know it, you've just heard one! Underlying both arias and recitative was the amazing variety of colors coming from the pit. I would welcome the chance to hear this score played this well without the singers and actors.

Yet, no way could I blindfold myself and miss the stunning action on stage! In a first-ever collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, Seattle's designers and builders have worked wonders to create not only a stunning show, but one that will almost fit both stages. To be sure, the edges here looked a little cut off, with your position in the hall determining how much of each side you got to see. (On the right side of the hall, you miss altogether the biggest set piece: a statue of Diana aiming her arrow, strangely with her back to the sacrificial alter.) But it doesn't matter. This production (set by Thomas Lynch) was so multilayered that there was always plenty to engage your eye.

Among the visuals were the dancers, whose choreography (by Daniel Pelzig) was consistently interesting and included brief examples of whirling dervishes. Gestures of the dancers were echoed by the chorus and even the principal singers. Lighting (by Neil Peter Jampolis), colors, flaming sconces, and movement between the three "rooms" made this single set far from dull.

With one exception, the singing was of the highest caliber, as was the acting (direction by Stephen Wadsworth). Unfortunately, baritone Phillip Joll tried to be Wotan, over-singing into a horrible wobble/bark, except for one soft line, which was suddenly lovely. Nuccia Focile showed us once again what a fine artist she is, bringing intensity to every moment and singing Iphigenia with beauty and perfect technique. At Sunday's matinee, Marie Plette, whom I have in the past dismissed as competent but boring, surprised me no end with a Iphigenia that was nuanced and beautiful&far and away the best thing she's done in many appearances at SO. Her voice was effortlessly produced and was fuller than Focile's. I can't recommend one over the other.

Everyone else is scheduled to sing in both casts. Both as actors and as singers, they would be hard to top. Orestes was baritone Brett Polegato in a performance of taxing intensity yet with vocal subtlety and power. Tenor William Burden surpassed all previous Seattle appearances both in dramatic effect and vocal beauty. Both men were very easy on the eyes, as was the most impressive unnamed actor who portrayed a silent Agamemnon. Even the always excellent SO Chorus excelled itself, with the women singing with awesome beauty and clarity.

And the opera's end brought a big bonus: we got introduced to a new voice of great power and allure in mezzo-soprano Michele Losier (as the goddess Diana), who is only in her late twenties. She is the only cast member who is traveling with this production to the Met; she will appear in minor roles in Seattle's next presentation of Wagner's RING.

Visions of a possible trip to NYC next month to see this production with Domingo, Susan Graham, and Paul Groves keep popping into my head, but I'm afraid I'll have to be satisfied with another viewing here in Seattle later this month. Miss it at your peril!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rod@sgn.org.


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