GLUCK Iphigénie en Tauride
Triumphantly premiered in Paris in 1779, Iphigénie en Tauride is Gluck’s supreme masterpiece and the culmination of his efforts to purge opera of superfluous decoration and display. The action moves forwards swiftly and remorselessly. Iphigenia herself and her tormented brother Orestes inspired some of Gluck’s most powerful music, some of it fruitfully recycled from earlier operas. There are splendidly barbaric numbers for the Scythian King Thoas and his followers, while the choruses for Iphigenia’s priestesses are the quintessence of Gluck’s famed ‘classical simplicity’.
For all its musical and dramatic glories, Iphigenia’s noble austerity and absence of obvious ‘hit’ numbers have always militated against its wider popularity. In a still-sparse recorded field, the benchmarks have long been the performances conducted by Martin Pearlman, with Christine Goerke in the crucial title-role, and Marc Minkowski, with Mireille Delunsch. If not quite in their class, this new recording, taken from performances by the Sydney-based Pinchgut Opera, is certainly welcome. Antony Walker has a feeling for the broad Gluckian sweep and secures lively if not always immaculate playing from his period band. That said, both Pearlman and, especially, Minkowski have a lighter, more graceful rhythmic touch in the lyrical numbers and are more alive to the colours in Gluck’s deceptively simple score – say, in the churning viola obbligato that contradicts the sense of Orestes’s ‘Le calme rentre dans mon coeur’ (here too muted), or the plangent sustained bassoons in the Priestesses’ ‘Quand verrons nous tarir nos pleurs’.
Except for the underpowered, monochrome Pylade, all the singers impress, musically and dramatically, not least the glowing soprano of Margaret Plummer as First Priestess and dea ex machina Diana. The chorus, too, sing splendidly, with the women sounding properly ethereal in Gluck’s chaste, otherworldly music for the Priestesses. In the difficult role of Thoas, Christopher Richardson combines a baleful bass colouring with easy negotiation of the high tessitura. He thunders imperiously but also vividly embodies the fearful obsession of his Act 1 solo ‘De noirs pressentiments’. Despite the odd moment of strain, Grant Doyle makes an impassioned and moving Orestes, fining down his virile baritone to a numb pianissimo for the illusory peace of ‘Le calme rentre dans mon coeur’.
While Caitlin Hulcup cannot match Minkowski’s Mireille Delunsch in expressive French declamation, her lyric high mezzo, enfolding deeper, grander colourings, and sense of vulnerability are well-nigh ideal for the title-role. She is a fine vocal actress, responding acutely to each psychological phase in the unfolding drama. Iphigenia’s sublime soliloquy ‘O malheureuse Iphigénie’ is beautifully phrased and shaded, sadness etched in the very texture of her voice (though the obbligato oboe here is distinctly prosaic); and she is magnificent in the heroic anguish of her Act 4 aria ‘Je t’implore et je tremble’.
The recording minimises stage and audience noise, though singers can suffer in the balance in the more heavily scored numbers. While Minkowski remains my first choice, for its stronger overall cast and thrilling sense of drama, this new Iphigénie is an appreciable achievement, above all for Hulcup’s unfailingly eloquent and intense singing of the title-role.