Iphigenie en Tauride - Royal Opera House, 13 September 2007
Whatever its other flaws, at least this is an eco-friendly production. Director Robert Carsen minimises the carbon footprint by opting for a dimly-lit and empty charcoal box of a set and clothing everyone in plain and simple black. The principals' movement is limited, characterisation restrained, physical contact near-absent.
But this isn't polished minimalism. It's more of a cash-strapped regional theatre look, with chalked-up walls, buckets of water substituting for buckets of blood, and countless dancers flapping around the stage. The choreography is muddled and untidily executed, and often simply obscures the principals.
It's superficially coherent (black always goes with black), but insubstantial and generic. You could legitimately produce any opera from Orfeo to Peter Grimes like this, and it wouldn't make any less sense.
Carsen came to the initial Chicago production fresh from directing Brecht's Madre Coraggio (Mother Courage) in Milan, maybe carting some Brechtian presentational tropes with him. Parallels between Mother Courage and Iphigénie are tempting and have been drawn before, but are they enough to justify a production in this style?
The production leaves the music a lot of work to do to keep the audience engaged. Unfortunately, the small forces of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ivor Bolton never quite measure up. Though I was sitting fairly close to the pit, they were so subdued I found myself straining to hear them at times. And the drama lacking on the stage is not to be found in the pit - Bolton conducts with an elegance and restraint which is immaculate, but fails to enliven proceedings.
Placing the chorus in the orchestra pit isn't much of a loss visually - the busy dancers fill the stage - but the remoteness of their sound was odd and jarring.
The cast is first-rate, but all the singers seemed weighed down by the grey confines of the production. Susan Graham as Iphigénie has a rich and beautiful voice, but rarely managed to transmit any of Iphigénie's internal conflict. Paul Groves was a noble but rather static Pylade who sang with a lyrical grace. Simon Keenlyside as Oreste went rather the other way, peaking so early with his inner tortures that he resorted to barking his most agonised lines. In the end though, it was the singers who held this most underwhelming of productions together as they rose above the dullness around them.
Fellow audience member Tony Pappano applauded politely at the end like everyone else, though I wonder how strongly he'll be campaigning for an early revival of this elegant but curiously damp squib.