Claus Guth’s 2001 Zürich production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride is, rather surprisingly, the only video recording of the work currently available. Fortunately it’s a very decent production much preferable to the Met’s over-stuffed overly literal version but not, I think, to be preferred over Robert Carsen’s stark and elegant version seen in Toronto, Washington and elsewhere. The Zürich performance, led by William Christie, is very good but it’s rather let down by the video direction and the production for DVD.
Looking first at Guth’s production we get a largely black and white effort, though with quite a lot of blood. Costumes are modern and restrained and sets are minimalistic. Guth introduces body doubles for Iphigénie and Oreste and adds silent characters for Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. This quartet have giant puppet heads and seem to be used to convey the brother and sister’s thoughts and dreams. There’s one scene for instance in the Act 2 ballet where the four sit around a table with a big knife. Agamemnon stabs Iphigénie who stabs Oreste who stabs Clytemnestra who stabs Agamemnon and round and round they go. In a similar vein, the ladies of the chorus visually double up Iphigénie though curiously, while they all have an appalling stab wound in Act 1, the lady herself doesn’t. Guth uses quite a lot of semaphore like gestures, almost in the manner of Peter Sellars. There also seems to be a lot of commentary on the action going on by the “doubles” and the chorus but Thomas Grimm’s video direction shows us frustratingly little of it. Overall though, even with a limited look at what Guth is doing it makes sense; commenting on the action but not stuffing the story down the audience’s throat like the Met production. In fact, it’s very much in the spirit of a Greek tragedy. It assumes we know the story and want it expounded rather than told.
The performances are good. Juliette Galstian is a solid, if not exactly thrilling, Iphigénie. She doesn’t have the stage presence of, say, Susan Graham but sounds good and is maybe more “authentic” for Gluck than a bigger voice. Rod Gilfry is as good as usual here giving an intense, at times very intense, Oreste without ever being unmusical. Deon van der Walt is a sweet toned Pylade and Anton Scharinger blusters his way through Thoas, as one must. The minor characters are all perfectly adequately performed by members of the Zürich ensemble. The chorus, especially the ladies, sing very nicely indeed. William Christie directs with the Scintilla in the pit. Christie’s tempi seem pretty relaxed and there wasn’t as much drive as I think I’m used to. Certainly he’s six minutes slower than Gardiner on CD. The perception may be partly a function of the sound quality though. See below.
The disk doesn’t do the production or the performance justice. Thomas Grimm’s video direction really doesn’t allow us to see what is going on though at least he spares us cute angles. The 16:9 (curiously, the box says 4:3) picture is OK but the sound isn’t. On this disk the only sound option is Dolby 2.0 and it’s rather muffled and rather voice forward. It doesn’t do the orchestra any favours at all. I see from the Presto catalogue that their current offering is on the Arthaus label with DTS or LPCM sound. I’d hazard a bet that it greatly improves things. Also typically, the Kultur package includes only English subtitles, sub-minimal documentation and no extras. Bizarrely the opening screen credits the production to Opera Australia which is rather typical of the amount of care that went into this release!