The Canadian Opera Company has opened its sixth season in its new Toronto home, the Four Seasons Centre, with the eighteenth century opera Iphigénie en Tauride. It’s a story of hope, compassion and love set to magnificent music by German composer Christoph Williband Gluck.
Set at the end of the Trojan Wars, the opera is based on the play by the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides. It tells the story of a princess, Iphigénie, who, having been exiled from her Greek homeland, is forced to choose which of two shipwrecked mariners she will sacrifice to appease the gods. It turns out that these two sailors are her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade.
The opera is traditionally presented, as it was in this COC production, as a story of family betrayal and redemption. But much of the core of the opera is the story of the tender love between Oreste and Pylade, who is willing to give up his life for his friend. Marshall Pynkoski, co-artistic director of Toronto’s Opera Atelier, who mounted a production of this opera in 2009, has argued that the relationship between Oreste and Pylade can only properly be understood if they are seen as same-sex lovers.
Unfortunately, Canadian director Robert Carsen does not share this vision in the COC production and presents their relationship as, at best, a bromance. Despite the words of love expressed between the two men in the libretto, and the strong emotions reflected in Gluck’s music, the two men appear as uncomfortable expressing their love for one another on stage as would your average heterosexual male. Oreste and Pylade barely touch one another while Oreste seems to have no such inhibitions when he expresses his love for his sister Iphigénie. Frankly, instead of being a core part of the opera, the non-sexual nature of the men’s relationship as presented in this production was simply an annoying distraction.
The other distraction was the dark set (a black box with virtually no props), relieved only occasionally by flashes of light, and the equally dark, modern day costumes of the performers. The intent, apparently, was to lose the connection to classical antiquity and to highlight the universal nature of the story and the emotions involved. To me, however, the dark set and dark costumes quickly became lugubrious and claustrophobic.
Musically, however, the production was superb. American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, making her COC debut, was magnificent as Iphigénie, in what has become her signature role. Canadian baritone Russell Braun and Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser gave thrilling performances as Oreste and Pylade. The COC orchestra, conducted by the young Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, and the COC chorus under the direction of Sandra Horst, were, as usual, first rate.
Is this COC production worth seeing? Certainly, for the outstanding musicianship of the singers and orchestra. But if you want a production where the centrality of the love between Oreste and Pylade is honestly presented, you are probably going to have to petition Marshall Pynkoski to revive his Opera Atelier version.
Remaining performances of the Canadian Opera Company’s Iphigénie en Tauride at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto are on September 28, October 4, 7, 12 and 15 at 7:30 pm and October 1 at 4:30 pm.
Book tickets online anytime, by phone 416 363 8231 (long distance in Canada and the U.S. 1 800 250 4653) Monday to Friday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm or directly from the Four Seasons Centre box office, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Monday to Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm