Boston Baroque, fine cast, wrap season in style with a Gluck rarity

April 24, 2023 at 11:34 am

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Soula Parassidis is Iphigénie and Jesse Blumberg Oreste in Boston Baroque’s performance of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride at GBH Studios. Photo: Sam Brewer

Though his influence on the development of opera was immense, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s contributions to the genre are today anything but repertoire staples. This makes Boston Baroque’s season-closing presentation of his Iphigénie en Tauride at GBH’s Calderwood Studio last weekend a conspicuously welcome event.

Completed in 1778, the opera’s libretto (by Nicolas-François Guillard) is a simplified version of a play by Racine (which, in turn, was based on Euripides eponymous tragedy). The scenario follows the title character, who, thanks to the machinations of the goddess Diana, is serving as a priestess on the violent island of Tauris. As the opera opens, she has visions of her father, Agamemnon, being murdered by her mother Clytemnestra.

After this, a couple of shipwrecked Greeks, Orestes and Pylades, turn up. The brutal king of Tauris, Thaos, orders Iphigénie to sacrifice them to pacify the gods and ease his own troubled mind. She’s conflicted, though–and, as it turns out, with good reason: Orestes (who’s avenged her father by murdering Clytemnestra) is her brother.

This fact isn’t discovered until it’s nearly too late but, suffice it to say, the siblings are rescued from the clutches of Thaos just in the nick of time. The intervention of Diana absolves Orestes of guilt over his matricide and restores him to his throne in Mycenae. To the general rejoicing of the Greeks, the brutal population of Tauris is also pacified and the favor of the gods restored to humankind.

That this whole convoluted business unfolds not just clearly, but briskly, with a minimum of hand wringing, and a maximum sense of momentum is the chief glory of Gluck’s score. The composer, whose reforms of the genre aimed to replace the rigid set pieces of the Baroque form with a leaner, free-flowing approach that situated the dramatic impetus front-and-center, certainly knew what he was doing.

In Iphigénie, hardly a note or gesture is wasted. Even the instrumental prelude is more than just a curtain-raiser: its depiction of a pastoral scene devolving into a terrifying storm leads directly into the title character’s first appearance.

The opera’s four acts proceed virtually without pause. Accompanied recitatives (and there are many of these to help advance the plot) lead straightaway to solo and ensemble numbers. In all of them, Gluck’s vocal writing is idiomatic and can be demanding, but is never virtuosic simply for the sake of showing off.

Nor is there any shortage of fetching tunes or catchy, repeated riffs–in this Iphigénie foreshadows Rossini more than a little. What’s more, Gluck’s ear for color is always keen. This applies both to issues of instrumentation (the Janissary music in Act 1 blazes) and harmony (like the affecting shifts between major and minor at the end of Act 2).

Taken together, Iphigénie stands as a focused and truly engaging bit of theater. One certainly felt as much during Sunday’s final performance of Boston Baroque’s three-show run.

The production’s casting was supremely satisfying. Mezzo-soprano Soula Parassidis brought creamy warmth and pearly tone to the title role, conveying Iphigénie’s desperate, unhappy situation with a focus that was intense and affecting but never out of control.

Jesse Blumberg’s Orestes was fittingly dark-hued, the baritone imbuing his character’s all-consuming guilt at his past actions with resonant concentration. As Pylades, William Burden projected a welcome tonal brightness, but also moments of real fire, as in Act 3’s closing “Divinité des grandes âmes!”

David McFerrin’s outer-act appearances as Thoas were suitably stentorian if, at times, a touch warbly. In her brief turn as Diana, Angela Yam brought gleaming clarity to “Arrêtez! Écoutez mes décrets éternels.”

Throughout the afternoon, the performance’s choral contributions were well-blended and strong. Particularly impressive were the ladies’ echoes of Iphigénie at the end of Act 2 and their several appearances in Act 4. The coterie of soloists drawn from the choir to fill out brief roles also made the most of their various moments.

Boston Baroque music director Martin Pearlman presided over it all with a sure hand. Tempos were fleet, the orchestra’s rhythmic attacks electric, and balances generally fine.

Mo Zhou’s minimalist staging made smart use of a tight space. The voices were placed around the orchestra on the circular stage with video projections behind them evoking the various settings and overriding moods of the plot.

Given the strengths of the presentation, one only wishes it could have been experienced in a different venue. The Studio’s compact size meant that the supertitles, placed at the far edges of the stage, were virtually useless if one were trying to follow the action on stage.

What’s more, a discreet but bothersome echo followed the soloists as they moved about (especially behind and on the sides of the orchestra). There was no note in the program on whether they were amplified or not; on Sunday, at least, mics should have been entirely unnecessary.

Finally, the less said about the hall’s grotesquely uncomfortable seating situation, the better. Ironically, the last unexpectedly helped at least one listener find a new reason to appreciate Gluck’s streamlined approach to the art form.

Boston Baroque opens its 2023-24 season October 13-15 with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

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