Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Gluck revealed


SF Opera creates a night to remember

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in Iphigenie en Tauride. Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Opera
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The stage is black, with stark black walls claustrophobically encapsulating Iphigenie and the dancers who surround her. As the orchestra whips up a fury, black-clad men and women begin scrawling graffiti on the walls and attacking each other. Does this give sign of yet another Pamela Rosenberg Eurotrash import, in which the beauty of early music will be subsumed by a production designer's egomaniacal miscalculations?

Hardly. Instead, the starkly minimalist production sets the stage for opera at its finest and most relevant. It does so via the paradoxical modernism of its classical lines, its unspoken commentary on protagonists seemingly trapped by their collective plight, and the unexpected transformation in store for us at the end. Rather than shipwrecking what many consider Christoph Willibald Gluck's ultimate operatic achievement, production originator Robert Carsen and production designer Tobias Hoheisel, together with director Jean Michel Criqui, lighting designer Peter Van Praet, and choreographer Philippe Giraudeau have freed the composer's 228-year-old score from the confines of a classically-gilded proscenium, and invested his emotionally-charged music with 21st-century potency.

A fine production without top-flight singers, however, can only go so far. Here, the now-departed Rosenberg, who assembled three not-to-be-missed productions for the summer season, scored a 10. It's not just mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, accustomed to the production she has brought with her from Chicago, who deserves accolades for her opening-night triumph. Every singer in the cast, from Graham's co-stars to the offstage chorus members secreted in the orchestra pit, collaborated with expert conductor Patrick Summers and the SFO orchestra to create a night to remember.

Now 47, and at the peak of her powers, the slimmed-down Graham is singing with more passion, beauty, and technical assurance than ever. Along with her ever-gorgeous instrument has come an even greater capacity to inhabit a role. Graham is Iphigenie, so deeply invested in the struggle between external mandate and interior voice of truth that Gluck's masterpiece speaks to us as if it had been written yesterday.

Often sharing the stage with Graham, baritone Bo Skovhus (her brother Oreste) and tenor Paul Groves (his extremely close friend Pylade) sang with uncommon beauty and conviction. Skovhus threw himself into his role as if his life depended upon it (which, in terms of the story-line, it did). Groves was every bit his counterpart, the beauty, strength and purity of his Mozartian sound leading to speculation that the "friendship" between Oreste and Pylade goes deeper than the platonic. These are two friends well worth saving from the sacrificial altar.

Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, who first sang at SFO 17 years ago, made a potent contribution striding the stage in the smaller but no less important role of Thoas. Doss' handsome, commanding tone makes me wonder what other leading baritone roles he has within him. Soprano Heidi Melton, an Adler Fellow, transformed herself into an appropriately celestial goddess Diane. It was a little hard to figure out who was the First Priestess, who the Second, etc., but Virginia Pluth, Sally Mouzon, Torlef Borsting, and Adler Fellows Jeremy Galyon and Melody Moore acquitted themselves admirably in their smaller roles.

Conductor Patrick Summers infused the orchestra's sound with his awareness of early-music sonorities while never drowning out his singers with proof of his command.

Save for Orfeo ed Euridice, written 17 years before Iphigenie en Tauride , Gluck's operas are rarely or ever produced on big stages. More's the pity. In his later years, Gluck "reformed" opera from all-singing, all-dancing entertainment into high art.

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