Director Stephen Wadsworth made his Met debut in 2004 with a production of Handel’s “Rodelinda” that was memorable for its simplicity and for the emotional truth that simplicity carried. This season he’s been entrusted with a new production, shared with Seattle Opera, of Gluck’s 1779 masterpiece “Iphigenie en Tauride.” What’s lacking this time around is the uncluttered directness that worked so well in “Rodelinda.” Wadsworth can’t resist loading up on distracting dances and unnecessary stage business when he would be better off trusting Gluck’s genius to shine through.
This is, after all, Greek drama — based on Euripides — and it’s already bursting with emotion. Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenie, imprisoned by the Scythians, has been forced into servitude as their priestess in the goddess Diane’s temple at Tauride. When Scythian king Thoas orders Iphigenie to kill two captive Greek soldiers as a sacrifice to Diane, one of them turns out to be her own brother, Oreste.
In an opera that focuses on individuals, Wadsworth too often fills the stage — particularly in the evening’s first half — with dancers performing Daniel Pelzig’s whirling-dervish choreography and dumb-show visualizations of dreams and flashbacks already clearly described by the characters. Wadsworth even goes so far as to add a shouted “Non!” for Iphigenie that is nowhere in the libretto.
Three-quarters of Thomas Lynch’s set is effective — a russet-toned, torchlit sacrificial temple dominated by a monstrous statue. The rest of the stage is given over to an ugly, narrow gray space that interchangeably stands in for a passageway, an anteroom and a prison cell. Demarcated by two thick walls, it creates acoustical problems, including some squeezed-sounding reverb that does the singers no favors. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes seem to belong to no particular place or time, but they appropriately reflect the squalor of their war-torn surroundings.
Susan Graham heroically throws herself into the title role and, as always, sings French in an exemplary manner. Whether she has the right voice for Iphigenie is the question. Her lovely mezzo is essentially a lyric instrument; what’s missing is the declamatory weight this part requires. That kind of satisfying force is more the province of dramatic mezzos (Rita Gorr was a celebrated Iphigenie) or dramatic sopranos (Regine Crespin made her mark in the part, as did Christine Goerke at New York City Opera).
Placido Domingo is a noble figure of suffering as her brother Oreste; the part is usually sung by a lower voice, but some Gluck-sanctioned transpositions were made to accommodate Domingo’s tenor. His French remains heavily accented, but his stamina at 66 is remarkable.
Paul Groves has long made a specialty of the lighter French tenor repertoire, and as Pylade he sounds appropriately sweet yet powerful, with firm tone and impassioned delivery. Canadian mezzo Michele Losier makes her Met debut as Diane, flying down on wires as Euripides’ deus ex machina. She is unflatteringly costumed in something resembling black-leather dominatrix drag. Vocally, she doesn’t really ignite, but it would be nice to hear her in more congenial circumstances.
William Shimell bellows and barks King Thoas’ lines with little finesse. But in the small part of the First Priestess, Lisette Oropesa reveals a crystalline soprano and a sympathetic stage presence. The Met would do well to put her on the fast track toward more important roles.
The orchestra is in the reliable hands of Mostly Mozart musical director Louis Langree, making a welcome Met debut.