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Opera review

Susan Graham shines as COC's Iphigénie Add to ...

Iphigénie en Tauride

  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Thursday

The Canadian Opera Company began its new season where the last one left off, with a second production of a Gluck opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen. His Iphigénie en Tauride has a lot in common with last May’s Orfeo ed Euridice – a minimal setting, a dark, monochrome palette, and a conceptual rigour that fixates on a few themes, actions and symbols and clears the stage of everything else.

Unlike Orfeo, which eliminated dance even from the opera’s ballet sections, this Iphigénie is full of dancers, who acted out much of the bloody drama that hangs over the story of a Greek princess saved from sacrifice, only to be forced to sacrifice others in service of a paranoid king. This time it was the COC chorus that was banished, to the rear of the orchestra pit.

This show also has a star, singing one of her signature roles: Susan Graham, an American mezzo who has virtually taken over a part that used to be sung mainly by sopranos. The richness and detail of her singing was such that when she moved from recitative to aria, it seemed that the flow of melody merely changed its form, not its intensity. She gave the rather amiable, major-key music of Iphigénie’s big Act II lament a melancholic serenity that was perfect for the scene, the score and the moment. But I didn’t entirely buy the show’s well-articulated view of the heroine as a naïve girl-woman; she has already cut a lot of throats by the time we meet her.

Much of this opera builds toward the moment when Iphigénie realizes that her next sacrificial victim is her brother Oreste. But there’s also a big bromance in the centre of the work, between Oreste (sung by baritone Russell Braun) and Pylades (tenor Joseph Kaiser), who spend a lot of time trying to get each other off the hook. I’ve always found this secondary drama a distraction and, in spite of fine singing by both parties, didn’t feel that Carsen had entirely solved the problem.

Mark S. Doss vividly conveyed the terrors of King Thoas, though I found his brassy bass-baritone a bit unrelenting. Smaller roles were handsomely performed by Jacqueline Woodley, Mireille Asselin, Neil Craighead, Robert Pomakov, Ambur Braid and Lauren Segal, who seemed to launch the goddess Diana’s fix-all number from somewhere above the ceiling.

Philippe Giraudeau’s choreography treated the dancers as a bee-like collective organism, as was fashionable among modern dance troupes in the 1930s. The mass throat-slitting mime of the opening scene was very effective, if you could avoid thinking about slasher movies. I think his later obsession with physical swords was a mistake – a sword is a difficult prop to use well, and in this very psychological show it took on more phallic freight than seemed useful.

Tobias Hoheisel’s black-box set and severe black costuming constantly reminded us we were in a bleak place emotionally, though as Gluck’s music also reminds us, misery loves sunlight too. Carsen’s subdued lighting (designed with Peter Van Praet) made striking use of footlights, but the dawn at the end was too harshly lit to suit the happy ending.

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado led a trim and sensitive performance of the ground-breaking score. He coaxed a lean sound from the COC Orchestra strings, and made nimble work of Gluck’s many quick changes of tempo and tone. The COC Chorus sang very well, though like some others in this show, they could stand to sharpen up their French diction.

Iphigénie en Tauride continues through Oct. 15.

Editor's note: This online review has been changed to reflect the following print correction: The role of Orfeo in the Canadian Opera Company's May production of Orfeo ed Euridice was sung by Lawrence Zazzo. The mezzo-soprano in Iphigénie en Tauride is Susan Graham. Incorrect information appeared on Saturday.

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