Institutional violence has been a running theme in Torsten Fischer’s series of Gluck operas at the Theater an der Wien, albeit with a lid kept firmly on the idea of actual conflict. An indication to the contrary, given minutes into this staging of Iphigénie en Aulide with the Berlin Wall-style point-blank shooting of a wretched escapee from Herbert Schäfer’s concrete bunker of a set, is laden with little meaning beyond blunt signposting of the stakes which face Agamemnon (whose daughter’s sacrifice is demanded by the goddess Diana in exchange for the safe passage of Greek forces across the Aegean), while military uniforms, which veer wildly in style from in-your-face Nazi chic to a sleek Special Forces number for Patroclus, are assembled with a fetishist’s love of leather and jackboots and serve more to illuminate combat dress through the ages than Gluck’s opera.
For a production so obsessed with the paraphernalia of war not to force violence out into the open is one thing, but beneath the surface Fischer is no less noncommittal about showing us that which might flesh out sensibilities and breed motivation: Iphigénie’s cloying sweetness and light comes straight out of Central Casting; Achilles is pure cardboard; Agamemnon’s equivocation is tedious and cries out for shades of Hamlet. Portraying the prophesizing high priest Calchas as a visually impaired quadriplegic – to make heavy-handed points about Agamemnon’s blind faith and impotence – is a tacky metaphor made doubly offensive by desperately unfunny situational gags and other clichés. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about these one-dimensional stock characters is the pretentiously elusive fashion in which Fischer has them going about their stage business: every hollow action is clouded until unintelligible by a smoke screen of smug mystification, as if imparting acute observations that none but the most intellectually astute may decode.
Laid on thickly with a trowel, by contrast, is the analogy Fischer sees between Agamemnon at this stage in the House of Atreus saga and the post-9/11 US-led project to export democracy, or rather democracy favourably disposed to a Western agenda, to the Arab world. To that end, the wallpaper in Agamemnon’s portion of the bunker is helpfully plastered with an oil refinery motif and his people are a chauvinistic, paranoid and gullible bunch. Beyond that the comparison relies on quirks peculiar to preemptive war’s most famous poster child, like the 2003 claim of “finishing the job” in Iraq (restoring the lost honour of the father was practically an Atrean invention). But while the visuals scream George W. Bush, Fischer confusingly shows Agamemnon as a practitioner of Enlightenment Realpolitik – the more pertinent American parallel perhaps being Henry Kissinger’s obsession with Metternich – and the muddy charting of neoconservative ascendancy ten years after the fact regularly throws up ironies like the private contractor outfits the chorus don in their fourth or fifth costume variation on the military theme (alluding to shady Halliburton operations, though the more recent image of comical incompetence at G4S inevitably bleeds through).
Musically the evening was solid, with the only disappointment among the singers Paul Groves, who has received good notices for various haute-contre Gluck roles and yet seemed miscast in this production as Achilles. The part is a hard slog at times but tessitura that on the page is never more than awkward sounded murderous here. Lower down, flat phrasing and white, slightly reedy tone made for safer but dull singing. A rough-hewn face and doleful eyes go a long way in a Torsten Fischer production and Viennese favourite Bo Skovhus, playing Agamemnon when unhampered by the stage direction as if born to the role, put in a quietly authoritative performance, sounding pitifully conflicted throughout. Myrtò Papatanasiu, on her best pretty-voiced, ingenuous form as Iphigénie, initially came across cool and cautious but sang more openly as the evening wore on.
Inhabiting her role more fully and with better French than the other leads, Michelle Breedt teetered on Katherine Hepburn-style grande dame territory while remaining a more plausibly human character than her husband or daughter, and a couple of vinegary notes at the top never detracted from her quiveringly rich mezzo. One felt she would be an asset to any production of this opera and the potent entreaties of Clytemnestra’s big scena at the end were, as expected, the highlight of the evening. In the small but pivotal role of Calchas, Pavel Kudinov was an appropriately daunting vocal presence, and Zoltan Nagy and Edward Grint, as sidekicks Patroclus and Arcas, were respectable.
Typically self-assured and stirring singing from the Arnold Schoenberg Chor was matched by impressive playing from the Wiener Symphoniker. My preference for modern instruments does not necessarily indicate a desire to hear Gluck as Raymond Leppard conducted it, and under Alessandro de Marchi the playing was admirably modern in every sense of the word and idiomatic too.
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