Iphigenia in Crawley

6 May

English Touring Opera’s Iphigénie en Tauride got some excellent reviews, at least one – from the Guardian – giving it five stars and, since opportunities to see the piece don’t come round that often, I went over to Crawley to see it when they performed it at The Hawth on 5th May.

You don’t really associate Crawley with Gluck, but the auditorium is a lovely size for this sort of opera and the staff are among the friendliest I’ve come across – in how many other theatres do they ask you if you’ve enjoyed the show and wish you goodnight afterwards?

And the theatre was very respectably filled: the stalls were, pretty much, packed and a good many had been to see Don Giovanni the night before while a number of others, like me, had clearly travelled to see the opera.  From that point of view, it’s very conveniently placed for both London and the South East.

I admire Gluck’s operas but find it hard to love them.  There is powerful, affecting music.  The declamations and the arias are beautifully written, the dilemmas well expressed.  But I always find a distance, making it hard to sympathise with the characters.  There have been times when I’ve felt him speak directly to me: I was lucky enough to hear Janet Baker’s Alceste and still remember the way her singing of Divinités du Styx hit you where it hurt with its sheer power.  And there were marvellous moments in Glyndebourne’s Iphigénie en Aulide but, generally, I find him detached – even the ROH’s last production of this opera with Keenlyside didn’t grab me.  And its Orfeo was as memorable for its visual effects as for its drama.  Here, I feel that there’s almost something comic about the way in which Orestes and Pylades vie to be sacrificed, while the recognition scene seems curiously unmoving.  I admire, I don’t get involved.

I thought that it was given a good, but not great performance here.  The set is excellent –  grey concrete towers with a platform stretching across a brightly lit gap.  It looks good and catches the lowering gloom of the temple.  The priestesses are in heavy dresses, bloodstained from the human sacrifices.  Thoas and his men are barbaric.  The story is told clearly and there  a mixture of restraint about the production while recognising the violence of the opera.  You’re not distracted by business

Martin André conducted idiomatically.  He got the violence of the dances, the limpid beauty of so many of the phrases, those gorgeous oboes, and kept the opera moving securely.  The orchestra played really well for him and Gluck’s instrumental commentary and that wonderful way he has of melting into arias came across superbly.

The singers were good.  I thought Catherine Carby made a dignified, intelligent Iphigénie.  She sang securely, confidently – a lovely, clear, pure tone.  What I missed was the full level of despair and the ability to pierce your heart that great Gluck singing should achieve.  Grant Doyle was Oreste, singing vigorously, confidently but not movingly.  You sensed some, but not all of the desperation of a man in thrall to the Furies.  As Pyalde, John-Colyn Gyeantey used what struck me as a rather small, dry voice very successfully.  His caught the limpid style Gluck needs, phrased really expressively and he acted  well.  I just didn’t quite believe the intensity of the bond between the two men.

As Thoas, Craig Smith sounded pretty rough.  The lesser priestesses were good.  Diana was sung by a child – innocence yes, but perhaps it needs more sheer power and brilliance.  The chorus was really excellent, singing with conviction and power.

This was a very strong, honest and successful performance.  Anyone keen on or interested in Gluck should try to get to it.  It lacked, for me, the last element of intensity and emotion that the opera needs if it’s to be the sort of experience that Gluckians claim for it.  ETO are doing some pretty outstanding work at the moment.


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