WNO pulled out the big guns Friday for an Iphigenie en Tauride that was no doubt the most significant musical presentation of the season (not to downplay the many fine qualities in other recent shows, mind you). I've managed to see it twice before, in that celebrated Met Wadsworth version with Domingo, Graham, and Paul Groves, and the '06 Lyric run with Graham and Groves (which I remember as total dullsville production-wise though apparently I had some kinder words for it at the time)--but I'd venture that this outing made me appreciate anew what an incredible work it is. Some superficial flaws aside, this WNO revival makes an excellent case for the taut drama, involving psychology, and disarming music of Gluck's work. As Charles Downey's preview notes, this is a work that thrives the closer it gets to the sensibility of the Greek drama at its source. Where those afore-mentioned productions sometimes traded in heavy melodrama at the expense of clarity, the WNO production does a fine job of letting the plot unfold on the strength of the characters' own motivations and intelligence, and allowing the audience to really engage with the play.
Racette, in a role debut, sounds glorious in this music, if some of the trickier transitions are as yet a bit clumsy and the top thins a bit. This is a more thoughtful, reserved Iphigenie than Susan Graham's desperate refugee--the stern, almost desensitized authority Iphigienie must project in her public capacity clearly contrasted with her private anguish. The second act was gripping throughout, though I think she has room to dig deeper into the possibilities afforded by Iphigenie's arias in the first act, which were beautiful to listen to but somewhat perfunctory.
Shawn Mathey's Pylade turned in a fine first act, including a soaring "Unis dès la plus tendre enfance" (trans. "Oreste, I am totally gay for you"). He remained pretty committed through the second act (I imagine it is tough for most people not to seem just a bit aloof next to his stage bro), though vocally seemed to hit an increasing number of rough patches and was working awfully hard for it by the end. At his best he delivers a warm passionate sound, and his middleweight (vocal) size is a solid fit for the part, even if I find myself wanting something heavier at times.
And of course, Placido Domingo is onstage. I mean, there's just no getting around the fact that hearing him live continues, against all odds, to be one of the greatest gifts you can give to your ears (love this old Sieglinde post from the 2005 Met Walkure's intimating that the dark arts are at work). But even more than that, one pines for the immediacy of what he does with that big wonderful voice. On a stage of sensitive method actors, Domingo is old-school Hollywood--there's little chance of him disappearing behind Oreste, or Lohengrin, or what have you, but that doesn't mean what he's communicating isn't true. His tortured bravado, and the sad tender moments between him and Racette were the dramatic highlights of the evening.
As noted above, the dramatic action between the principals was well choreographed and communicated, and included some striking visuals like the red fabric representing the altar in the finale and the "blood" pursuing Oreste during his great monologue, though there were also a number of needlessly artsy/fussy moments. As choices go, the first act ballet was one of the more intriguing bits, a creepy interlude performed by four dancers in bathing suits and disco mirror caps plus a guy on hoof-like shorty stilts.
Before the half, the physical production flirted dangerously with the sort of unappealing hodgepodge concept we've been seeing a lot of here. But the second half brought enough successful moments to temper, if not entirely reverse, that assessment. The set is your basic "abstract antiquity" theme which, if somewhat static, gets the job done, and things vastly improved after the shiny black terrazzo wall that dominated the first half was retired. Costuming was a kind of lazy nondescript modern dress, trenchcoats for principals, sequined smocks for the chorus--you fill in the blanks. This sort of aesthetic muddiness doesn't really detract from the overall impact, but doesn't do it any favors either.
Oh and PS, if you are seeing the production, do note the whole aria Pylade does by the light of Marcellus Wallace's briefcase...