10/24/2007 01:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iphigénie en Tauride in Seattle

When I was a junior in high school, I had an English teacher who was charged with the unenviable task of drilling the principles of Greek tragedy into the heads of students whose mind and glands were far more interested in other things. Even now, some 37 years later, I recall her discussion of catharsis and the need for tension in the drama to be released. Distilled through the filter of the years, her argument was that the Gods of Tragedy demanded that the audience be given "a breather" every now and then. When these demands were not met, the Gods would inevitably cause a fly to land on the bald forehead of some minor character, causing him to shoo it away and dissolving the audience in wholly unintended mirth. I recalled this lesson at the Seattle Opera's performances of Iphigénie en Tauride last weekend. Time and time again the tension mounted to the point of being almost unbearable, and yet it never broke. Directorial skill has a way of working around such issues.

If librettist Nicolas-François Guillard's retelling of the Iphigenia ever had any light bits in it, history is silent on the subject. It is as unrelievedly grim a tale of this particular branch of the unhappy House of Atreus as humankind has ever crafted. Christoph Willibaud Gluck gave some his most inspired music to this opera, but Gluck was, if anything, even less inclined to humor than Guillard. This tends to come as something of an astonishment to modern audiences, audiences that are used to Mozart tossing in a sly musical smirk every now and then if only to relieve the tension, and Shakespeare who could never resist a pun, regardless of the havoc it caused to the tragic arc. A particularly talented stage director could likely find one or perhaps two moments in Richard Wagner's Parsifal where he might make the audience smile without doing violence to the music or the story (and heaven knows that there are dozens of such opportunities in Der Ring des Nibelungen) but such a thing is quite impossible in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride without utterly tearing it apart at the seams.

The opera is quite short (about 110 minutes running time) and it is a model of compact composition. If you accept the conventions of the form, it is a masterpiece. If you don't accept those conventions, it is an admirable - if mercifully short - piece of work. And for the work to succeed on stage it requires the generally recognized elements: First rate singers comfortable in Gluck's idiom, a director who knows that "when in doubt, understate" is a solid guide, and a conductor who can keep things moving forward without rushing. All of these were in evidence in the Emerald City over the weekend.

Iphigénie en Tauride
is the first co-production ever undertaken between the Seattle Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. The production seen in Seattle last weekend (and this coming week) moves to New York in December, where the singers and conductor will be entirely different. I am not at all certain of what New York audiences will make of this production, but I can report that the Seattle audiences on Saturday night (10/20) and Sunday afternoon (10/21) were lavish in their genuine enthusiasm and vigorous applause.

Thomas Lynch's set is a cross section of the Temple of Diana, with an immense statue of Diana seen in profile. Ornate doors lead into the temple and from it (if you are at all familiar with The Cafritz Doors at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, you know the type immediately). And directly behind the statue of Diana is the altar that plays so crucial a role in this production.

Altars, to those of us who swear fealty to the "major" religious involved in worship of the God of Israel, are a touchstone that work at a level beneath our consciousness. Altars are by definition sacred space in the truest sense. A man who grasped the horns of the alter was immune from the coercive power of the State. What was placed on the Altar was God's and God's alone. As a result, there was something quite literally shocking about seeing Scythian soldiers dancing on the altar - and at one point even sitting on it! - during the opera. The message was that people who could do such things were capable of anything. When you are in the presence of people who are capable of anything, demands such as those made by King Thoas to kill every non-Scythian in the bailiwick to placate Diana seem chillingly attainable. Sitting on an altar is a very small detail, but one that immediately conveys the sense that irrational, blood-thirsty demands can be met as readily as a modern businessman orders coffee light and sweet at the local doughnut shop.

Director Stephen Wadsworth had the unenviable task of making these doings - as foreign to a modern American audience as a depiction of everyday life in the lower reaches of the Zambezi River - not only comprehensible but dramatically compelling. Curiously enough, he does so in a way that draws constantly on the underlying Greek Tragedy that we know (sort of) and that he knows (real well). Iphigenia and her brother Orestes are the cat's paws of the Gods, but this fact does not mask the reality that they think, feel, and act as humans. They are, at bottom, masks, but they are masks that are human manipulations of the Gods. Their "coping mechanism" for the irrational is to be rational, even if rationality means going stark, raving insane. Little wonder that humor would be as out of place as a statute of the Buddha in Act Three.

Although an immense of credit must be given to Wadsworth and his creative team, an equal amount of praise must be directed toward conductor Gary Thor Wedow for the excellence of the musical realization and to Seattle Opera's General Director Speight Jenkins for some extraordinary casting (alas, those who see the production at The Met may only hear of it). It is no easy task to keep forward propulsion of the music while allowing the singers the chance to breathe, phrase and act, yet Wedow's light hand manages the feat nicely. Too many performances of this work are done in by conductors who slow things down to a crawl to give ill-chosen singers the chance to wrap their vocal chords around the notes; Wedow had the luxury of singers who needed no anti-musical accommodations to be made.

Brett Polegato's Orestes has already ruined two night's sleep and I suspect that my recollection of it will chase Somnus for many more nights to come. Forget about the fact that he had all the notes and that his phrasing was simply exquisite; his portrayal of a man made mad by the cruelty of the Gods was nothing less than searing. William Burden's portrayal of the faithful Pylades (whose interest in Orestes was obviously more than merely fraternal) was equally stupendous. Michèle Losier's Diana was a particular delight, made all the more wonderful by her arrival quite literally on the deus ex machina. Phillip Joll's Thoas would have benefited from less bluster and more suavity, but all those Wotans have obviously taken a vocal toll.

Nuccia Focile and Marie Plette were the Iphigenias (Focile on Saturday, Plette on Sunday). Both were brilliant, but in different ways. Focile is the better singer in terms of pure vocal production, and she has a radiance that lights the stage. Plette, although more effortful in her vocal production, is the more compelling actress. It is strictly a matter of personal taste, a choice between Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. You are not going to go wrong either way.

I will confess to having been less than enamored of Daniel Pelzig's choreography, and some of the gaily colored ribbon waving that went on got a bit tedious. But these are slight blemishes on an otherwise wholly commendable production. I recall that decades ago Sir Rudolf Bing wrote that his control over decisions made at the Metropolitan Opera extended to the casting "of the third orphan in Der Rosenkavalier." Similarly, you have to wonder who was responsible for the one and only supernumerary listed in the program. It could not have been a mere fortuity that the name of the supernumerary is listed in the program as "Rosetta Greek." I am told that she is a Seattle Opera regular. I suspect that the Gods are at it again.

There are additional performances on Wednesday (10/24), Friday (10/26) and Saturday (10/27). If you are anywhere between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, BC - or can arrange to be - I'd recommend getting a ticket.