Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Writing's on the Wall

June 17, 2007

Susan Graham
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

Despite all the conspiracy theories about the insidious forces of glamor and beauty thwarting musical and artistic values in the opera world, it seems to me that those who espouse these views may have overlooked a far more nefarious agent. After seeing Robert Carsen’s staging of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride now on display in San Francisco, I imagine these chicken littles will have something new to worry about - the undue influence of the chalk and wet sponge lobby. These items play prominently in a wonderful, minimal and dark vision of the work that relies heavily on evocative choreography by Phillipe Giraudeau. The production, which originated in Chicago and is a co-production with the Royal Opera in London, takes place in a giant empty black room with no apparent exits or entrances and walls covered in black chalkboard-like material which the cast periodically write on with both chalk and water. The water, which the cast applies directly to erase the chalk at times, is dripped and splattered at other moments to represent blood or something else equally grisly. This is a particularly effective tactic in the prologue where the dancers in male/female pairs reenact the three murders within Iphigénie’s family that occur prior to the events of the opera itself - water taking the place of blood in each of the three scenarios the dancers repeat over and over. This chaotic and war-like vision of Iphigénie in the prologue is mirrored at the end of the opera as war breaks out between the characters when she refuses Thoas's order to sacrifice her brother Oreste. Everyone comes dressed in totally black costumes that are effective at hiding chalk and sponges, they don’t provide much light or contrast in a hyper-dark, and hyper-somber staging. Instead, the production relies on virtuoso lighting effects from Peter van Praet to accentuate the gut-wrenching performances in a manner similar to Saturday night’s Don Giovanni. In the end of Iphigénie as Diane saves the day and brings piece to the land, all three walls rise 5 to 6 feet in the air to reveal a blinding white light surrounding the stage. I know it sounds trite here, but it was very effective on stage.

Susan Graham and cast
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

The production arrives in San Francisco with most of the original cast intact including Susan Graham as Iphigénie. It is a star vehicle for Graham who has no shortage of admirers including myself. She is excellent here and will also star in yet another new production of this same opera later this year for the Metropolitan Opera. She deserved the standing ovation she got and then some for this performance on Sunday which was overflowing with pathos. It was so overwhelming, in fact that the audience was virtually stunned into silence throughout most of the performance actually letting moments of post-aria quite go by without filling them with usually ever-present clapping. The other major roles were covered by Bo Skovhus as Oreste, and Paul Groves as Pylade. While Groves healed no one via sexual activity here, he delivered a wonderful set of arias and actually created some erotic tension in a work with a homoerotic subtext that Carsen did not shy away from. Skovhus's experience as Wozzeck paid off big-time here. He does psychologically tortured heroes like nobody else working today. The SF Opera orchestra, while not necessarily delicate under Patrick Summers, were otherwise quite good.

Bo Skovhus and cast
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2007

It was a great end to a weekend of very strong productions in San Francisco which, while bittersweet, filled me with some hope for the future. It has been a rough transitional season up north with rather sub-standard and unexciting work most of the fall, and these summer productions were a reminder of the spirit of adventurousness, among other qualities, that may be lost with Pamela Rosenberg’s departure last year. But at the same time, they point out what a great company San Francisco Opera is. There is certainly more than one way to skin a cat, and given Gockley’s track record in Houston and the first sign of his own plans as early as next season, I’m sure there will be plenty to look forward to. All three of the summer productions wrap up by July 1 so get out there before the parade passes you by.

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