The other life

After a long sojourn from living a real life in the city, I’ve dived straight back in and fully immersed myself in all that the citylights has to offer. In the past three weeks, I’ve watched a Steppenwolf play (and bought season tickets for a total of five shows), Pillowman; caught the Broadway musical Wicked (won the lottery and paid $25 for premium front row seats); and last night, attended the opera, Iphigénie en Tauride (paid $20 for student tickets, when the seats actually cost $170). All three productions were phenomenal; in particular, I was blown away by Iphigénie. After my horrid first opera experience, a painful modern production called Midsummer Marriage, I was (understandably) wary of attending another one. Happily, the gentleman sitting beside me last night completely agreed with me on that opera – he declared it “the worst production in history,” and said that by curtain call, only ten people were left in the theatre. (Incidentally, this gentleman’s a great fan of the opera. He has subscriptions to 7 operas, in 6 different cities – he flew in from Kentucky.) But Iphigénie was delightful. The set was haunting and evocative in its austerity – an empty black box; and Susan Graham put up an absolutely extraordinary performance.

Because I don’t know how to critque opera, the Wall Street Journal review:

Mezzo Susan Graham, who is trying to escape from the tyranny of trouser roles, such as Octavian (“Der Rosenkavalier”) and the Composer (“Ariadne auf Naxos”), is making a specialty of the title role of Gluck’s 1779 “Iphigénie en Tauride.” … Tragedy suits her: Her Iphigénie made the most of her dark, velvety sound and passionate intensity.

Robert Carsen’s stage concept zeroed in on death: Iphigénie, rescued by Diana from being sacrificed by Agamemnon, endures a living death in a barbaric land, where she is forced to serve as priestess performing human sacrifices, while back home the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and the guilt of her brother Oreste prolong the curse of the House of Atreus.

Designer Tobias Hoheisel made everything black and spare: an empty black box for the set, black costumes — shifts for the women and shirts, pants and some long military-style coats for the men. Mr. Carsen and Peter Van Praet kept the lighting somber, with occasional floodlights that created huge shadows.

The Lyric’s fine chorus sang from the pit; the onstage ensemble members were all dancers. At the beginning of the opera, the dancers wrote the names of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Iphigénie on the walls in big chalk letters and re-enacted their murders, multiplied. Eventually, all the names were erased.

At the same time, the three principal characters were real people. Baritone Lucas Meachem was splendidly tormented as Oreste; tenor Paul Groves sang exquisitely as his loving friend Pylade (the question is which one will be sacrificed; each wants to spare the other). Baritone Mark Delavan sounded a little stressed in the brief role of Thoas but made him a convincing villain. By brilliantly combining ritual and naturalism, Mr. Carsen made the opera’s descent into despair — and final rescue — both visual and visceral, and Louis Langrée’s clean, expressive conducting captured the purity and richness of the score.

I know why I stayed away for such a long time. But now I’m back, and ready for more.


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