Can I pull that trick that always made me throw bricks at the tube when they did it on Alias? You know, Sydney's about to jump out of a plane and the door opens and they play that sul ponticello tremolo of danger and the screen goes black and it says:
Twelve hours earlier...
Twelve hours earlier, I wrote a rather pissy post about how trop cher it's gotten to hear a lousy pack of Bohemians moan about the cold, or what have you. Write something like that and you run the risk of sounding like you're asking the universe for a ticket, so the only honest thing to do is decide, but really, not to go. Which I did. It is after all Domingo in a bit of stunt casting, Ms. Graham who (let's not pretend) I have hemmed and hawed over in the past, mostly hawed. It's another new production in a season where, despite the sparky wattage of Dessay, one was forced to recall stories of theatrical directors in opera asking the conductor, "What should they do here? There's music, but no words." Maybe there will be no Minghella-fly this season--didn't you think as much?
Sometimes you gotta be rescued from your own stupid. My white knight was the voracious listener whose impeccable verbiage you read at Night after Night, among other places. After all, nobody's going to say no to meeting the folks who do for real what you and I (well, some of you) play at with tea sets and barbies, and if there's a prima involved, more's the incentive to accept.
There's something I have to say about tonight's Iphegenie, but I'm asking you to let me off the hook if I sober up later. Maybe I'm just high, but I may have just spent my finest evening at the Met. "But Maury," says my cat, who was not asked, "what about Frau? And Troyens? And Jenufa? And Tebaldi's Gioconda?" She's trying to make me feel old, I think. I wasn't at Tebaldi's Gioconda, nor was I in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was shot.
And she has a point. I think it's fine, though, to have all-time favorites that last until the next. So correct me next time something is the best EVAR if you will, but right now, I am at the feet of all who performed and perhaps most of all, Stephen Wadsworth and his team, who must, must becomes fixtures at the Metropolitan. You know I'm serious when I use its full name, right?
Because what Wadsworth did was, I guess, magically sidestep the problem of whether to try to wrench a stageworthy performance, in some naturalistic sense, out of someone who must at the same time sing, or just try to get everyone comfortable in stock gestures that are almost impossible to produce with aplomb. How he did this exactly I am still working out, but I think it was embodied most fully in the Act III trio between Iphegenie, Pylade, and Oreste are basically reenacting the duet from The Impressario where Madames Herz and Silberklang spend twenty minutes saying "No, I am the prima donna!" "No, I am the prima donna!" [lather, rinse repeat] except in this case it's "No, I want to die!" It's static stuff.
So Mr. Wadsworth a) chained them to an altar, which meant nobody got to run to the front of the stage, and b) let them all sit down together, Graham in the middle. Because yes, some really important conversations take place without people facing each other and without anyone getting up. All I can compare it to is Barak, in aforementioned Frau, sitting forlornly in front of an open fridge, also known as My Favorite Thing Anyone Has Ever Made an Opera Singer Do. I'm probably making too much of this.
The set itself seemed conceived as a visual whole in a burst of inspiration, where so many seem to have come from words: so there are these screens, and they move around a lot; or, so they're all about to be in a photograph. It divides the stage seemingly instinctively rather than practically. I am staunchly opposed to stage action before music, but am fully prepared to make an exception for the admittedly ostentatious gesture that begins this work. I wouldn't dream of ruining it for you. If you don't get to go, ask me later.
If you'd like to serve me a plate of cold crow regarding Susan Graham, I will fetch the A-1 sauce. It's true. I've never liked her singing, or never liked it enough, and hearing her praised I could only shrug and feel defined by my minority opinion. Now, I don't think much of epiphanies and conversions, and if you asked who I'd rather hear as der Komponist in an Ariadne to be mounted tomorrow, I'd still write "Mentzer" on my slip of paper without hesitation. As Iphegenie, however, there is nothing that could be done that Susan Graham did not do. She has found what JSU once termed (in discussing what makes a soprano able to deliver "Es Gibt ein Reich" as it must be delivered) inner stillness. I credit her and her director, oh and Gluck while I'm at it. The sync between artist and role was immaculate. And, since this is always my barometer, yes: the acting was as much in the chords as the hands or the face. Or that hair that is such a problem in the posters.
I find it interesting that Domingo has not, last I looked, sold this show out. As we all know, the little old ladies would knock down the hearty to hear him sing Die Toten Augen. Either Gluck is beyond the pale, or someone let it out that he's not singing tenor here, or not exactly so. Oreste, so I understand it, is proto-zwischenfach, and what better to sink your teeth into when you're an already notably baritonal tenor many years past his last Manrico? As Oreste, making sometimes a different sound than the one we know, he was fascinating, and not in the least doing a star turn. You could hardly fault Paul Groves for going all gay for him, I mean really. His lack of vanity was equaled only by his trust in the role, which he treated as no less a sing than Siegmund. Of course there's a certain contingent whose only comment will be "I told you he never had a C." On them a pox, as always.
Speaking of Groves, though, despite his high standards in Mozart, didn't we all think of Groves as a leetle bit of a reliable milquetoast? And then, like the quiet kid who it turns out has a mean left jab, we all sat there slowly realizing as he sang "La calme rentre dans mon coeur" that he can sing Gluck with that balance of passion and elegance that matters here perhaps even more than in Mozart.
William Shimell as Thoas sang with great commitment and, well, limited vocal resources. You know what else, before I try and wring a few hours' sleep out of the night, though? Not enough can be said about how much the Met needs to keep it coming with the Gluck. Maybe it was Louis Langree's extraordinary sense of how to make Gluck sound appropriate in a huge hall without turning into into old-school steroidal proto-Bruckner, but I think just as much, what happened tonight was a cue for anyone listening to reevaluate Gluck, not an academic figure of reform from a textbook or a dusty champion of mythology, but rather as a musical mind whose dramatic heart beat fast and urgent as Wagner's. I'm thinking it's time to dig up my Minkowski Armide and listen to the terrifying ending and hope Peter Gelb might own it as well.
No kidding, I think I may have to see it again before I can tell you everything that was great about it. It is a terrible burden of duty, you understand, but I suffer for you kids.
Next up: probaby another Iphigenie. Jonathan of Wellsung and I are thinking of having a bake sale or just selling our furniture on craigslist as a means of funding several more times on this particular ride.
My thanks again to my kind and gregarious host, who I'm guessing will have words for you as well.
ETA: for all you versionologists out there, Matthew Westphal at Playbill Arts clarifies just what it is we've seen.
The version of Iphigénie used by the Met for this production is something of a hybrid, adapted for the particular strengths of this cast. The bulk of the score will be performed in the original version Gluck wrote for Paris in 1779, but with some changes taken from the adaptation the composer made for its 1781 Vienna premiere, in which Oreste is a tenor rather than a baritone role. Other borrowings from the Vienna version include the transposed version of King Thoas's opera and several orchestral movements.