Throughout the history of music, you can find composers who enjoyed enormous fame and admiration, only to slip into widespread neglect. Usually, it means that someone more famous and more admired happened along, transforming the style and scope of the art form and changing public tastes in the process.
Christoph Willibald Gluck suffered such a fate. He was, in his own way, a revolutionary, carving out a fresh path for opera, away from the ornamental excess of the late baroque and laying the groundwork for others to take the genre yet another big step. For a while, Gluck's stature was considered equal to that of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner (if memory serves, his visage is among those of eminent composers adorning the interior of the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore).
Gluck once said his goal was to create
"beautiful simplicity" in opera, and that's what he achieved -- lots of recitative, no showy arias. In a way, he just reaffirmed opera's Renaissance roots and, for a time, a lot of people thought it was a splendid idea.
But these days, Gluck operas are pretty hard to come by. All the more reason, then, to cheer the Metropolitan Opera's revival of "Iphigenie en Tauride" in 2007, a production now back onstage, and Washington National Opera's presentation of the same work from 1779 later this season in a different production. Both of these ventures happen to star Placido Domingo, which has to help Gluck's marketability.
I caught the Met's version this week on a night when the other stellar attraction, mezzo Susan Graham, was down and out with a cold. Domingo had one, too, but he decided to go on anyway and didn't seem at all the worse for it.
Stepping in for Graham in the title role was Elizabeth Bishop, who gave a very respectable performance, vocally and theatrically. She persuasively conveyed the torment of Iphigenie, daughter of Agamemnon and sister of Oreste, whose life she ends up holding in her hands.
Domingo threw himself into the role of Oreste and shaped the music with a certain nobility of tone and phrase. I should mention that the tenor turned 70 last month. Somewhere, perhaps, there's a portrait of his vocal cords looking all worn out, while Domingo's voice retains a remarkable degree of its earlier power and vibrancy.
Paul Groves, as Oreste's dearest friend, Pylade, sang compellingly. Deep-voiced Gordon Hawkins did admirable work as the Scythian king Thoas. The women of the Met Chorus produced a consistently beautiful sound that became exquisite in their Act 4 passages. Patrick Summers conducted elegantly, drawing stylistically sensitive playing from the orchestra.
The big, handsome production, with a flame-lit set by Thomas Lynch and Renaissance-flavored costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, effectively matches and intensifies the dark issues of this ancient Greek tale, and the deus ex machina moments are handled in a disarming, unabashedly literal fashion.
All in all, a worthy reminder of how subtle and refined and genuine Gluck's music is, how potent "Iphigenie en Tauride" remains.
If you can't catch this production live, it's part of 'The Met: Live in HD' series - 1 p.m. (ET) Feb. 26.
PHOTO BY KEN HOWARD/METROPOLITAN OPERA