Image borrowed from www.royaloperahouse.org.uk

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

I decided rather late and on impulse to go and see this, having heard a few snippets of the music on the radio once. Not that the snippets made much of an impression on me (as music rarely does make much of an impression on me when presented in the form of ‘bleeding chunks’ taken out of context), but I’ll go and hear Simon Keenlyside singing more or less anything, and an acquaintance of mine is extremely keen on Susan Graham and described her Iphigenie as unmissable.

I’ve said before that I generally like minimalist stage sets in opera. However, there’s minimalist and then there’s seriously minimal. This was the latter. While walking to the tube station afterwards I fell into conversation with some string players from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and after complimenting them on their playing, commented that it was the first time I’d been to an opera where the cast were dressed exactly the same as the orchestra. One of them retorted that the orchestra were more glamorous, and she had a point. On stage, all women wore long plain black dresses, long loose hair and bare feet; all men wore plain black shirts, trousers and shoes (although Mr Keenlyside did politely take his shoes and socks off before hopping on the sacrificial altar).

To match the outfits, the stage was bare and matt black, with a little matt black stage for the sacrificial altar, when required. At some points, non-singing cast members graffitied the walls with white chalk, which made it even more reminiscent of the Dublin Castle / Weaver’s Arms / {insert your own grimy London gig pub} than it already was. Then other cast members came and sponged off the graffiti. When they got hold of Oreste and Pylade, they imprisoned them in a hand-drawn chalk square. At the beginning there were various people miming killing eachother, falling over and getting up again, so I was very glad to see that Iphigenie had a proper big shiny sword. This was the main prop, apart from the chalk and sponges.

However, good actors do not need a set or props, and the acting was of a very high standard, and really quite gripping. And the lack of any eye-catching objects and clothes made one focus entirely on the characters, which I presume was the intention. It worked pretty well. Graham was a completely commanding presence as Iphigenie, from the first moment she appeared to the last. She also sounded lovely, showing off a great dynamic and expressive range. I’m a convert. I can imagine that in some casts she might rather dominate the other singers, but fortunately Keenlyside’s Oreste was her match in vocal and dramatic intensity. This I would expect, but what was also nice was that his voice and Pylade’s (Paul Groves) blended particularly well, and their scenes together were very convincing, somewhat ambiguous but not too heavy-handed with the gay overtones to the friendship. Although having said that, the depiction of Oreste being terrorised by the vengeful furies involved him being stroked, pawed, and generally rolled around on by a succession of attractive young women, which does not seem to me a particularly good way to terrorise and torment the majority of (straight) men.

Of the other voices, I wouldn’t say that any particularly leaped out at me as brilliant, but there was no weak link, and most were very pleasant indeed. I don’t know the music well enough to comment on tempi or phrasing, but the orchestra (under Ivor Bolton) sounded pretty good to me, especially the strings. The woodwind sounded a bit weird at certain times, but I’m quite prepared to believe (if someone tells me so) that it only sounded funny to me because I so rarely listen to period reeds and flutes and am not used to the timbres. Having recently been discussing pitch conventions through the ages, I was wondering if the nice warm un-stressed sound was anything to do with playing at a historically-informed pitch, like A=432 or lower. Perhaps if I have any readers with perfect pitch, they could let me know if this was the case, and what it was?

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