Savoring the rare beauty of 'Iphigenie'

If opera had somehow become so unfashionable, so unthinkable that no one dared create another one after 1779, we'd still be well off, for that would mean we'd still have an incredible work from that year — Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride" ("Iphigenia in Tauris").

This fusion of exquisite music and telling dramatic substance, based on ancient Greek tales involving the ill-fated family of Agamemnon, has in recent years been attracting fresh attention. Helping to fuel the attention is the fact that tenor Placido Domingo added the role of Oreste from "Iphigenie" to his unprecedentedly extensive repertoire.

In one of his parting gifts to the company he has run as general director for 15 years, Domingo is singing that role for Washington National Opera's first-ever production of "Iphigenie." He is by no means the only draw, for the lineup also boasts soprano Patricia Racette, one of today's most incisive vocal artists, in the title role. The rest of the cast, too, proves quite effective.

And then there's the staging itself. Opinions, I imagine, will vary over the starkly modern set design by Luis Antonio Suarez and sometimes oddball costumes by Pepa Ojanguren (originally for Opera de Oviedo).

The net effect suggests a vintage episode of "Star Trek." It seems that the hapless Oreste and his buddy, Pylade, have landed on one of those planets where Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock found themselves surrounded by strangely fascinating women.

Director Emilio Sagi calls for a lot of stylized poses and slow-mo gestures, which adds to the off-beat look. A few things turn silly, but the overall concept serves the action rather than detracts from it. And several stage pictures, notably the solemn gathering for the prayer that closes Act 2, provide a compelling complement to the music's sublime beauty.

The opera's plot finds Iphigenie in the land of Tauride, where the king, Thoas, decrees that she, as high priestess, must sacrifice two shipwrecked Greek strangers. One of those strangers is her brother, Oreste, who has just killed their mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the murder of their father, Agamemnon, at the hands of Clytemnestra and her lover. Got that?

In the course of the opera, Oreste is hounded by guilt, Iphigenie by doubt. The fact that brother and sister do not recognize each other until the last possible moment adds to the tension.

"Iphigenie" is a compact opera, a perfect example of Gluck's mission to reform what he saw as excesses that had diluted the art form. There isn't a wasted or gratuitous note. Everything in the score is focused tightly on the story, and the music keeps that story, despite its mythological nature (the goddess Diana makes an appearance), focused intently on human emotions.

Racette gives an inspired performance as Iphigenie, with singing of remarkable warmth and expressive intensity, and acting that invariably rings true.

The soprano also seems thoroughly comfortable carrying out the distinctive motions in this production, even when required to sing while hanging on by a thread — actually, hanging onto small rungs that run up the walls of the set. (There's quite a bit of climbing done on those rungs by cast members, even the septuagenarian Domingo, which must make some backstage personnel awfully nervous.)

Domingo uses his age-defying voice to keen effect as he creates a vivid portrayal of the tormented Oreste. It's still a thrill to hear that golden sound.

The tenor's phrasing is wonderfully nuanced, allowing him to make telling interpretive points in the brilliant mad scene of Act 2 (the staging here, with an infusion of red lighting, is striking). Likewise, Domingo gets deep into the scenes where Oreste and his treasured friend, Pylade, debate their fate.

Shawn Mathey does admirable work, vocally and dramatically, as Pylade. Simone Alberghini's singing as Thoas is vibrant, but could use a little more tonal weight. Members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program fill out the rest of the supporting roles ably. And, as Iphigenie's priestesses, the women of the chorus produce a consistently sweet, well-balanced sound.

Dancers (choreographed by Diniz Sanchez) carry out their assignments energetically, sporting a variation on beachwear. A wild pair of stilts comes into play, too.

In the pit, conductor William Lacey molds the score with a gentle touch, allowing the most lyrical moments to bloom. And he draws refined playing from the orchestra, the finishing touch in a sensitive, absorbing production of an operatic gem.

If you go

Performances of "Iphigenie en Tauride" continue through May 28 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-295-2400 or go to

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