14 December 2015

BEST OPERA RECORDING OF 2015 — Christoph Willibald Gluck: IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE (C. Hulcup, G. Doyle, C. Saunders, C. Richardson, M. Plummer, N. Dinopoulos; Pinchgut LIVE PG006)

BEST OPERA RECORDING OF 2015: Christoph Willibald Gluck - IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE (Pinchgut LIVE PG006)CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Iphigénie en TaurideCaitlin Hulcup (Iphigénie), Grant Doyle (Oreste), Christopher Saunders (Pylade), Christopher Richardson (Thoas), Margaret Plummer (Une prêtresse, Une grecque, Diane), Nicholas Dinopoulos (Un scythe, Un ministre du sanctuaire); Cantillation; Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard, Associate Conductor and harpsichord; Antony Walker, Conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances by Pinchgut Opera in City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, on 3, 5, 7, and 9 December 2014; Pinchgut LIVE PG006; 2 CDs, 111:01; Available from Pinchgut Opera and major music retailers]

When Iphigénie en Tauride premièred at Paris’s Salle du Palais-Royal on 18 May 1779, the sixty-four-year-old Christoph Willibald Gluck was at the end of his three-decade career as a composer of opera. His final opera, Iphigénie en Tauride is in many ways the culmination of the refashioning of opera seria that Gluck initiated with his 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice and continued in Alceste, Armide, and Iphigénie en Aulide. In the second of his Iphigenia operas, Gluck viscerally explores a multitude of emotions, none of which overstays its welcome: there is not in the score of Iphigénie en Tauride one superfluous or dramatically insignificant note. Performances of Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas have traditionally approached the music either from the perspective of the Baroque models of Lully and Rameau or from that of later exemplars of similar serious opera like Cherubini, Beethoven, and Weber. It is true both that without Thésée and Dardanus there may never have been an Iphigénie en Tauride and that without Gluck’s opera there may have been no Médée, Fidelio, or Der Freischütz, but Gluck’s music is to a marked degree sui generis. By Eighteenth-Century standards, Gluck’s was a long life, and his first operas were written when Händel remained active as a composer of opera and his last when Mozart’s Idomeneo was only two years in future. Among his contemporaries, Gluck’s operatic skill set was unique: Hasse’s style was more gallant, Haydn’s operas were less harmonically progressive, Mysliveček’s vocal lines were more instrumental in nature, Salieri’s idiom was more cosmopolitan, and Mozart’s operas even in his youth were less stylized. Whether Gluck was successful in his aim to return to opera a measure of its histrionic inheritance from Greek drama can be debated by pedagogues, but hearing Pinchgut LIVE's new recording of Iphigénie en Tauride, a souvenir of Pinchgut Opera's acclaimed December 2014 production of the opera, leaves no questions about the musical and theatrical efficacy of Gluck's last opera unanswered.

There are many examples of shared guidance of an Arts institution engendering more tribulations than triumphs, but Pinchgut Opera’s productions are superb evidence of what can be achieved when like-minded advocates for opera combine their respective strengths. Guided by Antony Walker, who conducted this production of Iphigénie en Tauride, and Erin Helyard, who served as Associate Conductor and provided the quicksilver harpsichord continuo, Pinchgut’s endeavors benefit from the collaboration of two first-rate musical minds. Walker’s stylish, spirited pacing of a wide repertory has been showcased in opera houses and concert halls throughout the world, and this recording confirms that his command of Gluck’s music is no less noteworthy than his mastery of Nineteenth-Century opera. Under Walker’s direction, the playing of Pinchgut Opera’s resident period-instrument ensemble, Orchestra of the Antipodes, is as red-blooded and large-scaled as Gluck’s score requires. This is not historically-informed playing of the dainty, quills-and-catgut variety. The sounds produced by Orchestra of the Antipodes fabricate a credible recreation of music first performed in 1779 but also enable the listener to appreciate the noble grandeur that so engaged the imaginations of Berlioz and Wagner. The taut construction of Gluck’s score notwithstanding, Iphigénie en Tauride can be surprisingly dull in performance and on disc, but Walker paces the performance that plays out on this recording with unflagging energy and momentum. The elocutions of the ‘Calme’ and ‘Tempète’ of the opera's orchestral introduction are revealing: Walker accentuates the contrast by closely following Gluck's instructions. Walker’s fidelity to the score is admirable, not least for the extent to which adhering to the mandates of the music—and those of Nicolas-François Guillard’s libretto—sharpens the focus of the drama. The continuity of the performance that Walker paces makes it virtually impossible to believe that some of Iphigénie’s most memorable pages are borrowed from other Gluck scores, including the opening scene (sourced from the not-unjustly-neglected L’île de Merlin) and Iphigénie’s impactful ‘Ô malheureuse Iphigénie’ (adapted from an aria in La clemenza di Tito). This is a testament both to Gluck’s talent for molding coherent music dramas and to Walker’s intelligent handling of the music. The alert, ingratiating playing of Orchestra of the Antipodes is complemented by the singing of Cantillation. Throughout the performance, the choristers sing with excellent intonation and precisely the dramatic profile required by each scene. The chorus is of great importance in all of Gluck's ‘reform’ operas but perhaps more so in Iphigénie en Tauride than any other. Responding to Walker’s intuitive management of tempi, Cantillation's singers provide uncommonly well-integrated accounts of Gluck's choruses, thrilling and touching in turns. In many performances of Iphigénie en Tauride, the soloists are betrayed by poor conducting, orchestral playing, or choral singing: in Pinchgut Opera's recording, the efforts of Walker, Helyard, Orchestra of the Antipodes, and Cantillation are vital components of the performance's tremendous success.

Observers who have very publicly caviled at the increasingly ‘international’ casting of English National Opera productions should consider shifting their loyalties to Pinchgut Opera, where there is a firm dedication to casting singers from Australia and Oceania. Furthermore, Pinchgut’s ongoing commitment to recording their productions enables listeners beyond Australia to hear singers whose work is not yet as known internationally as it deserves to be. For their production of Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut assembled an ensemble of Australian singers whose fluency in Gluck’s musical language is impeccable. Portraying both an unnamed Scythe and the Ministre du sanctuaire, bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos—an Oreste in the making—sings handsomely and powerfully, the authority of his voicing of the latter part’s ‘Étrangers malheureux, il faut vous séparer’ markedly increasing the menace of the scene in Act Two in which he appears. His music in Iphigénie en Tauride is neither demanding nor extensive in comparison with other works in his repertoire, but Dinopoulos is a singer whose attractive, assured vocalism and unaffected acting are always noticed. This is also true of mezzo-soprano Margaret Plummer, whose firm, focused tones are heard with pleasure in Gluck’s music for the Prêtresse and the anonymous Grecque. It is as Iphigénie’s deus ex machine Diane that Plummer is most memorable, however. The resonant, aptly unanswerable beauty with which she delivers Diane’s ‘Arrêtez! écoutez mes décrets éternels’ in Act Three is indeed divine. Like Dinopoulos, Plummer is a singer who leaves her mark on a performance and one ready to assume her place as one of opera’s finest leading ladies.

The Scythian King Thoas is sung with villainous glee and robust, rock-solid tone by bass-baritone Christopher Richardson. In Act One, the singer introduces himself with a burly voicing of ‘Dieux! le malheur en tous lieux suit mes pas,’ and he proceeds to sing the Andante ‘De noirs pressentiments mon âme intimidée’ with laudable flair, the repeated top F♯s and Gs seeming to trouble him very little. Not heard again until Act Four, Richardson returns with a ringing account of ‘De tes forfaits la trame est découverte,’ his aggressive but debonair vocalism bringing the cruel, complicated Thoas to unexpectedly sympathetic life.

The career of Central Queensland native tenor Christopher Saunders is a narrative of hardship, resilience, and recovery. Injured in an automobile accident whilst en route to hospital to receive a diagnosis of Bell's Palsy, Saunders is a musical phoenix who rebuilt not only his voice but also his confidence. Singing the rôle of Oreste’s cousin, friend, and comrade-in-arms Pylade in Pinchgut’s Iphigénie en Tauride, he veritably defines what is possible through perseverance. One cannot rebuild the Taj Mahal with Lego bricks, however, and Saunders’s valiant efforts would have achieved nothing had there not been top-quality vocal material with which to work. Pylade was written for and first performed by the celebrated French haute-contre Joseph Legros, whose upper register extended at least to E♭5, and was interpreted in an 1821 revival of the opera by Adolphe Nourrit, renowned for his singing of stratospheric music composed for him by Rossini. Gluck’s demands on Pylade are more modest, but the rôle is a trove of deceptive lyricism. Saunders sings Pylade’s Act One recitative ‘Notre projet est un mystère’ with elegance, the distinctive nasal vowels of the French text suiting the constitution of Saunders’s voice. Pylade’s lovely Cantabile con moto ‘Unis dès la plus tendre enfance’ in Act Two is one of the finest portions of Saunders’s performance, the top As lightly touched in a manner redolent of the voix mixte known to have been employed by hautes-contre of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Saunders does not wholly avoid strain in the upper register, but the moments of stress legitimize the tenor’s deeply-felt depiction of Pylade’s misfortunes. In the Act Three trio with Iphigénie and Oreste, Saunders sings passionately, and his articulation of the recitative ‘Ô moment trop heureux!’ exudes sincerity. His thoughtful ‘Dieux! fléchissez son cœur’ with Oreste is a heart-rending statement of a friend’s anguish that is seconded by an affecting performance of the Allegro espressivo ‘Ah! mon ami, j'implore ta pitié.’ Saunders phrases ‘Divinité des grandes âmes’ with dignity, and his voice audibly brightens in Act Four when Pylade learns that Oreste has been reunited with his sister and saved from sacrifice. There is no doubt that Saunders infuses his singing with emotions channeled from his own personal experiences and is all the more persuasive an artist for it. In this Iphigénie en Tauride, he is a marvelously direct, moving Pylade who sings plangently even when under duress.

From the first bar of his recitative ‘Ô mon ami, c'est moi qui cause ton trépas!’ in Act One, Adelaide-born baritone Grant Doyle portrays an Oreste of integrity and vulnerability. Even before being condemned to slaughter upon his landing on Taurisé’s inhospitable shores, Oreste’s lot has been one of tragedy and misadventure: partly in retribution for his having been complicit in the alleged sacrifice of their daughter Iphigénie [she was, in fact, rescued by Diana and installed in the goddess’s temple on Tauris], Oreste’s mother Clytaemnestra murdered his father Agamemnon and was subsequently murdered herself by Oreste as vengeance for his father. Matricide having been frowned upon even in the bloody world of Euripides, Oreste has been tormented by the Furies, finding solace only in the company of the loyal Pylade. The weight of Oreste’s torment resounds in Doyle’s athletic singing of the Allegro ‘Dieux qui me poursuivez, Dieux, auteurs de mes crimes’ in Act Two, and he declaims the recitative ‘Dieux protecteurs de ces affreux rivages’ with unstinting strength. In fact, Doyle’s emphatic, rousingly masculine vocalism occasionally overwhelms the music, his Oreste therefore sounding more haranguing than heroic. The innovative Andante ‘Le calme rentre dans mon cœur’ is essentially a mad scene in which Oreste is mercilessly hounded by the Furies, and Doyle responds with a performance in which the character’s mental state is uncertain but the singer’s assurance is unflappable. There is tenderness in the baritone’s singing of Oreste’s lines in the Act Three trio with Iphigénie and Pylade, as well as in his ruggedly affectionate ‘Dieux! fléchissez son cœur’ with Pylade. Doyle’s brusque enunciation of the Lento ‘Quoi? toujours à mes vœux vous êtes insensible,’ though vocally impressive, reduces the emotional effect of the number. In Act Four, however, Doyle’s performance is ideal, musically and dramatically. He sings the Larghetto ‘Que ces regrets touchants pour mon cœur ont de charmes!’ with suavity and easy command of the tessitura, but it is his refined treatment of the Moderato cantabile ‘Partage mon bonheur’ that is the apex of Doyle’s performance. Oreste’s destiny ameliorates at last, and the character’s relief permeates the baritone’s singing. Doyle is a captivating actor, but, above all, it is very gratifying to hear a voice of true substance in one of Gluck’s most significant baritone rôles.

In the six decades since the first recording of the opera was released, the title rôle in Iphigénie en Tauride has fared well before microphones, both in studio and on stage. Important singers who have donned Iphigénie’s sacred robes include Patricia Neway, Maria Callas, Hilde Zadek, Sena Jurinac, Régine Crespin, Marilyn Horne, Diana Montague, and Christine Goerke, an eclectic society of singing actresses with little more in common than having sung Iphigénie. Though she memorably recorded Iphigénie’s ‘Non, cet affreux devoir,’ the absence of Dame Janet Baker’s name from the ranks of Iphigénies on disc is surprising. Without question, Baker was the most celebrated Gluck interpreter of her generation, and it is Baker whose vocal prowess and acumen as an actress that mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup’s singing of Iphigénie in this performance often recalls. Accomplished in a repertory spanning multiple centuries of musical invention, Hulcup finds in Gluck’s long-suffering Iphigénie a rôle that might have been written with her individual gifts in mind. Like Baker, she grants music and text equal importance, maximizing the communicative capacities of Iphigénie’s strenuous vocal lines. The unimpeachable security of her repeated ascents to G at the top of the stave in ‘Grands Dieux! soyez-nous secourables’ in Act One illustrates the level of excellence that Hulcup achieves in this music. Her ‘Ô race de Pélops! race toujours fatale!’ is fiery but sophisticated, Iphigénie’s aristocratic demeanor always apparent. The air ‘Ô toi, qui prolongeas mes jours’ is marked by Gluck as très doux, and this perfectly describes Hulcup’s singing, as well. With pitch tuned to A = 430 Hz, a reasonable representation of tuning in Paris in 1779 [a law passed eighty years later standardized pitch in France at A = 435 Hz] and approximately a quarter-tone lower than modern concert pitch, the top As are not altogether comfortable for Hulcup, but she turns occasional hints of overextension to her advantage. The mezzo-soprano’s portrayal of the troubled Iphigénie gains further dimension in Act Two, not least with her subtle singing of the recitative ‘Je vois toute l'horreur que ma présence vous inspire’ and her penetrating ‘Ô Ciel! de mes tourments la cause et le témoin.’ The Classical poise of her voicing of the pained Cantabile con espressione ‘Ô malheueurse Iphigénie’ is a credit to herself and to Gluck, the top As taxing her vocal resources but compellingly conveying the character’s despair and desperation. The recitative ‘Je cède à vos désirs’ and Larghetto cantabile air ‘D'une image, hélas! trop chérie’ in Act Three are delivered with abundant tonal beauty, and Hulcup reaches dizzying heights of tragic expression in the trio with Oreste and Pylade. Her performance of ‘Je pourrais du tyran tromper la barbarie’ alone qualifies her as world-class Iphigénie, but she crowns her interpretation with particularly fine, fearless sing in Act Four. The top As in the recitative ‘Non, cet affreux devoir je ne puis le remplir’ display increased freedom, and she suffuses ‘Ah! laissons là ce souvenir funeste’ with sounds befitting the daughter of a royal house. Not long after singing Iphigénie in Sydney, Hulcup expanded her Gluckian résumé with a much-appreciated portrayal of the titular troubadour in Orfeo ed Euridice for Scottish Opera. Singers with special affinities for Gluck’s music are rare, but even among their sparse company Hulcup is exceptional. A worthy rival to Callas, Jurinac, and Goerke, hers is as well-sung an Iphigénie as has been heard in the modern age.

Expectations are always high when Pinchgut Opera launches a new season. [The 2016 Pinchgut schedule offers the inspired pairing of Haydn’s Armida and Händel’s Theodora.] What sets Pinchgut Opera apart from most of the world’s opera companies is the consistency with which their productions meet and exceed those lofty expectations. Perhaps the land of kangaroos and koalas is not the first locale that comes to mind in contemplation of settings for performances of his ‘reform’ operas that fully realize Gluck’s musical and theatrical goals. It should be. With splendid performances all round, this Iphigénie en Tauride establishes Pinchgut Opera as Gluck’s Bayreuth.