The Greek tragedian Euripides wrote two versions of the Iphigenia myth which have survived for us today: the classic Iphigenia at Aulis, in which Agamemnon's youngest daughter is killed as a human sacrifice in order to placate the winds which will carry the Greek fleet to the Trojan war (a fate she accepts nobly for the greater glory of Greece), and an alternative version, Iphigenia in Tauris, where Iphigenia is not in fact killed, but spirited away at the last second by Artemis to the safety of her temple at Tauris to wait out the Trojan War in ignorance of her family's fate. It seems strange, at first, for this "safe" version to have made it into opera: but, as Iphigenia is forced to preside as priestess of Tauris' death cult, ironically carrying out multiple human sacrifices having escaped her own, and very nearly kills her own brother Orestes in the process, there's plenty for Gluck and his librettist Guillard to play with.

Catherine Carby (Iphigénie), Greek Priestesses © Richard Hubert Smith
Catherine Carby (Iphigénie), Greek Priestesses
© Richard Hubert Smith

Above all, Gluck's reform agenda stands out proudly: his clear, elegant score can sound almost aggressively simple at times, while his streamlined structure almost pushes us out through aria and recitative into the continuous drama which Wagner would eventually make compulsory. English Touring Opera's James Conway gives us a suitably blood-spattered temple, with priestesses in nondescript blue headscarves and gory aprons, somewhere between Vermeer maidservants and butchers. The sense of threat does feel more painted on than built in to this production, particularly due to some rough overacting from Tauris' bloodthirsty king Thoas (Craig Smith, wearing what seems to be a skinned teddy bear pelisse, attacking his lines with rather more viciousness than skill), but Conway pours, splashes or drips blood across the stage with relish, keeping our minds at all times on the human slaughterhouse until the eerie apparition of Diane finally proclaims peace and ends the cycle of death (Diane is the goddess Artemis, voiced with rarefied freshness by young soprano Charlotte Pollard).

Catherine Carby (Iphigénie) © Richard Hubert Smith
Catherine Carby (Iphigénie)
© Richard Hubert Smith
The cleverest touches are the simplest: a while sheet twisted into a corpse for a ritual burial scene, or disembodied hands grabbling out from the staging to represent the Furies. Anna Fleischle's design is a brutalist take on a classical skene, with a raised platform for occasional split stage action. At the centre, a vast oversized doorway dominates the stage: Tauris is itself a spiritual gateway, whose temple impiously mixes life and death, a place where mortality is directly in touch with the divine. Shards of glass hang like so many swords of Damocles in the centre of the doorway, a constant, delicate menace. Sensitively lit by Guy Hoare, washes of colour provide atmosphere and warmth, or chills, with flashes of white light for the storm which shipwrecks Orestes on Tauris' fatal shore. 

Conductor Martin André always kept the pace of Gluck's score thrumming forwards, but often sounded unsympathetic to his singers, with the orchestra and chorus clashing disastrously in Gluck's challenging military marches, which sounded more debacle than success. Elsewhere, lines and ideas came out crisply, but Gluck's simplicity can have a sensuous shadow which seemed to be lacking in André's determinedly unromantic reading. 

Catherine Carby makes an affecting Iphigénie, strong in her upper ranges, with lovely projection and control, though her French can be hazy. In a performance which grows in conviction, Carby gives us a proud princess who exerts natural authority over her companions while hating her exile, loathing her task, and longing for her family with affecting pathos. Grant Doyle's warm and powerful baritone makes for a charismatic Oreste, wholeheartedly determined on his own death and almost impossibly self-absorbed, though not quite as mad as the libretto might indicate: Doyle gives us a man who has actively decided to give up on life (though his singing never fails to deliver).

John-Colyn Gyeantey (Pylade) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) © Richard Hubert Smith
John-Colyn Gyeantey (Pylade) and Grant Doyle (Oreste)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The surprise treat of the evening was a superbly engaging Pylades from John-Colyn Gyeantey, voiced with clarity and passion, confidently occupying centre stage for his solo aria on the power of friendship which had the audience spellbound: singing in French seems to unlock a world of natural expressive potential in Gyeantey. A very pleasing Scythian guard from Simon Gfeller, and a strong male Chorus, in which Bradley Travis stood out particularly with his dynamic presence and wonderfully expressive face, kept stage energy high until Gluck's final, bewilderingly beautiful declaration of peace.

***11