Music, Stage

Iphigénie En Tauride review (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

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There are two words that spring to mind when I think of opera. Pomp. And circumstance. Pomp, in light of all the sets, costumes and theatrical excesses that so typify the big-end-of-town expressions of the form. Circumstance, because of melodramatic contrivances implicit in libretti, that stretch credulity to its outer edges.
Yet, while Pinchgut Opera’s Iphigenie, by way of Greek myth (methinks those ancients had too much ouzo before the tales were related), is no easier to swallow, it does away with the massive overkill which can so often drown a story, rather than buoy it. That’s because Picnchgut, the accidental opera company (but that’s another story altogether), is rather shorter on budget than you-know-who. But it works in its favour, inasmuch as it challenges a strapped set designer (in this case, Tony Assness) to do more, with much less. And, in this, Assness has been fiendishly inventive.
Billowing from the high ceiling of Angel Place’s City Recital Hall are what look like supersized freezer bags, which, when lit by a commensurately devious genius such as Matthew Marshall, become an eerie, stalactite-like, hard, crystalline heavens, from which ye gods, on high, clap down thunderbolts and lightning, very, very fright’ning. And the timing couldn’t have been better, having just walked out of a spectacular, forked-purple summer storm into the cool confines of the concert hall. Two huge, vaulted white panels enhance the sense of other, or nether, worldliness, with the pristine promise of redemption as they reach to the realm above. The third and really the only other element of physical staging is a carefully art directed ‘pile’ of rectangular plinths, rough-hewn, again white. There’s something quintessentially Greek about it: not just the whitewash, which conjures (pre-austerity) images of  idyllic Aegean islands, but the allusion to monumental ruins. Most of the action takes place on one sharply-pitched plinth, a veritable slippery slope; oh how fragile our tenure, our foothold in this, or the spiritual domain. Alistair Trung’s wardrobe (his own is tres stylish), which has priestesses swathed in scarlet and the merciless Thoas’ henchmen looking like an ebonised Taliban, is striking and superbly coutured.
Directly in front of the Athenian building site (akin, perhaps,to the reported remains of the 2004 Olympic venues) sits the Orchestra of the Antipodes, with their quaint-looking and sounding period instruments, which bring warmth and intimacy back to music. Under the ardent baton (well, expressive hands) of the astonishingly accomplished Antony Walker, the ensemble shimmers: subtlety is its forte, but, when called upon, it can rise to the occasion, summoning the power of the pantheon. The score, by Christoph Willibald Gluck, is accessible and, for the most part, downright pleasing. Which isn’t, I hasten to add, to damn it with faint praise: it doesn’t have to be Wagnerian of scale, or texture, to earn a compliment.
Speaking of storms, Brian Nixon’s timpani effects, at the outset, were the very rumblings of real-life thunder, the quintessential sound of foreboding and bubble, bubble, toil and trouble looming. And, as with that excerpt, partly due to the superior acoustics of the space, but very much owing to the sensibilities of the orchestra, the many and various elements of the manuscript were transported in enviable aural balance; not with mere Swiss-watchful precision of timing and pitch, but with luxuriant tonality. This is an orchestra to be reckoned with.
Happily, Nicolas-Francois Guillard’s libretto has concision, clarity and moves the action along apace, without too much prettying-up, by way of poetic embellishments. (The decision to project subtitles onto the backdrop, in Futura, was also a bold and successful one, like most of director Lindy Hume’s.) Thus, four acts and one-hundred and fifty-odd minutes passes painlessly. Pleasurably, in fact. Not least due to the performers.
Atop of the vocal bill is Caitlin Hulcup, as Iphigenie. Surely you remember your post-Homeric legends. She, the hapless daughter of Agamemnon, who sacrificed her on account of some ambitious naval-gazing. Hulcup is a classic mezzo-soprano, with all the toasty timbre that implies. Amazingly, given her virtuosity on her native instrument, she started life as a violinist and violist and perhaps it’s this that has endowed her with an uncommon awareness and sympathy for the totality of the form, rather than the sometimes egocentric ambivalence one suspects pertains to the odd prima donna here or there. Even at full tilt, her control is flawless and modulation never falters. Better yet, even while upholding this gold standard of musicality, she is able to imbue a fulsome emotional range: trembling with fear; aching with sadness; shaking with anger. It’s a quietly consummate performance. Quietly consummate? Yes. It doesn’t succumb to the trappings  and indulgences of being first lady: there are no over-egged histrionics, or ‘pushed’ notes.
Grant Doyle is Orestes, Iphigenie’s exiled brother, who, whadya know, ends up on Gilligan’s (or someone’s) island, under the governorship of the Scythians. Strangely, we’re expected to believe brother and sister, while noting, each, the uncanny resemblance of their respective countenances to their estranged sibling, don’t recognise each other. Of course, blindly accepting this is the key that unlocks enjoyment of the work. Like Hulcup, Doyle, a baritone, has a big voice and, like a hulking V8 in an old school, wide-tracked, gas-guzzling, befinned American car, one senses, thanks to lusty torque, plenty in reserve. Unlike one or two more celebrated ‘bassists’, too, his register sacrifices not one iota of diction. To boot, he’s a convincing actor, vividly portraying the torment of a man who’s killed his mother, for killing his father; an exercise in the most dubious  of poetic justices. Besides him is his intimate (and it seems to me Hume hasn’t passed up the opportunity to suggest some homoerotic companionship), Pylade, played by smooth-as-silk tenor, Christopher Saunders. Christopher Richardson is his nemesis and antithesis: the loyal Pylade countered by the opportunistic evil embodied in Thoas, the Christopher Pyne of Trojan heroes. Margaret Plummer’s appearances, as Diane, maybe brief, but they’re laudable, also.
Finally, there’s the unsurpassable Cantillation choir, sufficing as priestesses, guars, furies and Greeks.
Pinchgut turns Greek tragedy into baklava.
[box]Iphigénie En Tauride is at City Recital Hall, Sydney until 9 December. Featured image by Keith Saunders.[/box]

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