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'Iphigénie en Aulide'

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That Bonkers House of Atreus

Jane Glover

 (Photo by Jerry Bauer)

The house of Atreus, it’s safe to say, is bonkers. And what’s the stuff of Greek tragedy is also, of course, the stuff of opera. In February, the fifth Juilliard-Metropolitan Opera collaboration continues with Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, his 1774 imagining of the trials and tribulations of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestre, and their daughter, Iphigénie. This is not to be confused with Gluck’s subsequent opera about the family, the far more frequently performed Iphigénie en Tauride. The semistaged Juilliard production of Iphigénie en Aulide is directed by faculty member David Paul; Jane Glover will conduct the singers, a combination of Juilliard students and participants in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program (some of whom are Juilliard alums). Glover was last at Juilliard in 2012, when she conducted the Juilliard-Lindemann production of Gluck’s Armide. This time around though, the instrumentalists will be Juilliard415, the school’s period-instrument ensemble. In anticipation of the production, The Journal spoke with some of the people involved with the program, including Glover and Paul, as well as Benjamin Sosland (M.M. ’03, D.M.A. ’08, voice), administrative director of historical performance and assistant dean for the Kovner Fellowship Program, and Brian Zeger (M.M. ’81, piano), artistic director of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and executive director of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. 

David Paul

David Paul

(Photo by Ambarish Manepalli)

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How do earlier versions of the work (Euripedes, Racine) figure in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide?

David Paul Gluck’s opera is an adaptation of the play by Jean Racine, which in turn was an adaptation of Euripides’ original tragedy. The central premise of the story—Diana’s demand for Iphigénie to be sacrificed—remains the same across all three versions, as does the agony this causes her, Agamemnon, Clytemnestre, and Achille. The other major commonality between all three versions is the manner in which they tell this story: predominantly through great speeches or arias, interspersed with highly dramatic dialogue or ensembles. That said, other elements of the story—particularly the invention of a romance between Iphigénie and Achille, and of course Gluck’s happy ending—take great liberties with Euripides’ original work. Gluck clearly had a composer’s agenda in creating a total piece of musical theater rather than just an effective play.

Why was the decision made to produce the lesser-known of the Iphigénie operas?

Brian Zeger For one thing, the Met’s production of Iphigénie en Tauride [the Met revived Juilliard faculty member Stephen Wadsworth’s production in 2010-11] was so beautifully done that I felt that piece had been very well served and seen by a large audience over two seasons. Also its vocal demands are more dramatic. I felt that we could produce Aulide well with the young voices at our disposal.

Paul There are a number of reasons—mostly practical—that explain the recent resurgence of Iphigénie en Tauride as opposed to Iphigénie en Aulide. The role of Achille (Lindemann tenor Andrew Stenson) in our opera is one of Gluck’s most challenging vocal parts, where both tenor roles in Tauride are much more manageable. I feel that both pieces are masterworks in their respective ways, and while Tauride has some truly sublime musical moments, I am personally more drawn to the story and the characters of Aulide. Gluck managed to transform what was originally the tragedy of just one character—Iphigénie (Lindemann soprano Ying Fang)—into the tragedy of four people who struggle and suffer through a horrible dilemma. It’s uniquely powerful and moving.  

Jane Glover I think the two Gluck Iphigénie operas are equally fine, though by the time we get to Tauride, the characters are more extreme. In Aulide, we meet Agamemnon (Lindemann baritone Yunpeng Wang) and Clytemnestre (second-year master’s mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez) before the sort of Straussian axe-wielding modes [that you find in other versions of their story]. They’re almost normal parents, actually, faced with horrible, classic dilemmas. In Agamemnon’s case, it’s duty to his vow or love for his daughter. It’s a very 18th-century operatic problem that audiences would have been very familiar with.

How will this production differ from that of the Met-Juilliard Armide, in 2013?

Glover The biggest difference is period instruments and the amazing ensemble Juilliard415, which I’m very excited about because I know they’re fantastic. But it’s a huge play for them—the thing about these Gluck operas is that the string players never put their arms down. It’s exhausting—it’s a bit like Wagner in that way. 

How’s it going so far?

Glover I’ve just been here for a day and half, but I’m thrilled with the casting. It’s wonderful to have the strength of the people over the road [at the Met] intermeshed with the people here—it’s obviously a fine link to have. And it’s interesting to be doing a second project with the same composer because nobody does these pieces very much. But the music is amazing and the story is extraordinary. 

What are the challenges in presenting the piece in concert rather than fully staged?

Paul Not to be a spoiler, but considering that a god descends to earth for the opera’s climax, we definitely have our work cut out for us! That said, my goal as director is always first and foremost to tell the story, and to convey the relationships between the characters in the most powerful way possible. While presenting an opera in a concert version reduces our technical range of expression, it also helps refocus the attention on the people performing, and the words and music they sing. I see this as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to highlight and explore the human dimension to this intense, but classic, story. 

Why was the decision made to use period instruments?

Zeger It’s a gift to have the superb musicians of Juilliard415 to work with. Given that the Met’s recent Tauride was done with modern instruments, the opportunity to use our Historical Performance players gives New York City audiences the chance to hear a different, more transparent sound.

Benjamin Sosland To a certain extent because we can! For Historical Performance, our focus is roughly 1600 through about 1824, so the Gluck (1774) fits in quite well. While the bulk of our performing energy is directed toward Baroque music, our forays into different corners of the literature, including Classical repertoire, have been an essential part of our educational mandate since the beginning. In general, the notion of what constitutes “early music” continues to evolve and so do we.

Has the addition of the Historical Performance program at Juilliard added any new elements to the teaching of singing? 

Zeger Our singers learn a great deal from the conductors that we bring in for these projects: Jane Glover, William Christie, and Harry Bicket are just a few of the names. All of them are gifted as teachers as well as conductors. And we’ll continue to expand our offerings so that singers approaching these works have as full a set of stylistic tools as they do for later music.

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