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The Return of Gluck: The Reformer Makes His Mark Anew in America's Opera Houses
Thomas May
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2007

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Gluck has been, in some ways, a victim of his success. He’s most typically cast in the role of “reformer” — which is to say, he’s secured a prominent place in music history books. We’re all familiar with the image of Gluck as a pivotal link between baroque excess and more modern sensibilities.

Yet such historically minded, linear thinking sometimes encourages the impression that Gluck is merely a transitional chapter — and one superseded by those he went on to inspire. Meanwhile, clichés of his music as the quintessence of “noble purity” can be offputting. They’re uncomfortably reminiscent of the impatience Peter Schaefer’s Mozart (in Amadeus) voices for composers who “sound as if they shit marble.”

But the spate of revivals of Monteverdi, Rameau and Handel have proved that operas once dismissed as dated, historical artifacts can still hold sway over audiences. Could it be Gluck’s turn now for a similar process of reevaluation? It’s still too early to judge whether a lasting revival is underway, but — after a long period of neglect on American stages — Gluck has become, for the moment at least, a hot ticket thanks to several new high-profile productions.

Opera Boston and Boston Baroque presented a well-received Alceste in 2005 (set in a 19th-century Shaker milieu). This past season, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera both mounted Robert Carsen’s stark, claustrophobic vision of what is generally considered Gluck’s masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride, featuring Susan Graham. Seattle Opera and the Metropolitan Opera are staging another new production of the opera this fall (the first joint venture by both companies). It will mark the first time the Met has presented Iphigénie en Tauride since Richard Strauss’s version was given in 1916. And a true rarity, Gluck’s prereformist comic opera L’Ile de Merlin, found its way to the stage in a production by iconoclast Christopher Alden for last summer’s Spoleto Festival.

Even Orfeo ed Euridice, the one Gluck opera which has kept a toehold in the repertory, is generating a fresh buzz. The Met chose it as the vehicle for choreographer Mark Morris’s directorial debut in last season’s Isaac Mizrahi-clad new production (the first staging there in over three decades). Glimmerglass Opera just devoted its entire festival to the figure of Orpheus, including Lillian Groag’s new production of Orphée et Eurydice (Berlioz’s version of the Gluck opera), while Toronto’s Opera Atelier staged the 1774 French version in May.

So what accounts for the renewed interest in Gluck? There’s no question that Susan Graham’s advocacy of Iphigénie en Tauride has been crucial. “I sang Iphigénie for the first time in 2000 in Salzburg,” Graham said, “and it was a real turning point for me as I was graduating from Mozart mezzos to big-girl parts. It was incredibly satisfying to discover the stature and musical astuteness in this role. The character’s range of expression has a profundity throughout, and it challenges me to find the right vocal colors to maintain that arc through the opera.”

“Susan Graham is the reason this opera is having a revival,” according to Stephen Wadsworth, who is directing the Seattle Opera/Met co-production (Graham sings Iphigénie in New York, while Nuccia Focile is cast for Seattle). “The combination of inner intensity she finds in the character and the way her voice stretches to this soprano range is incredible.”

Wadsworth also pointed out that “there has not been a consistent tradition of serious good acting in opera until quite recently” — and Gluck’s Racine-inspired reform operas “are dramas of inner action, the most subtle and complex for actors.” Indeed, Gluck’s uncompromising vision of “a fusion of storytelling through dance and choral participation and principal action in a way that’s truly unified,” as Wadsworth described it, is virtually a manifesto for artistic collaboration.

Fellow directors share Wadsworth’s sense of excitement about the possibilities staging Gluck affords. Speaking during a break from rehearsals for the Glimmerglass Orphée et Eurydice, Lillian Groag enthused about the freedom from “psychological realism” that Gluck’s mythic subject matter allows. “We are much more theatrically conscious, more aware of possibilities of interpretation.” Orpheus represents “the proto-myth for artists and for coming to terms with death. It shows that the horror of the world as we know it can stop for a moment of incredible peace when the beasts are tamed.”

“Gluck is on the cutting edge of the intense display of the baroque into something more introspective, the romantic mentality,” said Marshall Pynkoski, founder of Toronto’s baroque-centered Opera Atelier (which staged its own Iphigénie en Tauride in 2003). “When Marie Antoinette brought Gluck to Paris, she was the most fashionable woman in the world. She knew she wasn’t bringing in some charming gallant composer but the bad boy who was said to be destroying opera. It must have been thrilling to see an opera that lasted only as long as it needed to, with dancers shouting on stage.”

Along with today’s keener sense of the necessary dramatic values, we seem to be better positioned for a Gluck renaissance as a result of the period-instrument revolution. “The early music revival has opened an enormous repertoire to us,” noted conductor Patrick Summers, whose intuitive grasp of the score was a big part of the success behind the Chicago and San Francisco productions.

“We’ve only recently examined how these works can exist in a modern repertory opera house with large orchestras trained specifically for the symphonic operas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a conductor who covers a wide range of styles, Gluck has been revealed to me as one of the greatest of the musical dramatists, in his simplicity, directness and lean emotional potency.”

“Until the serious discovery of period style in the 1985 Bach- Handel bicentenary year,” Wadsworth observed, “we had a highly inappropriate way of playing this music. I remember the old Balanchine Orfeo at the Met in the ‘60s, which was all about pretty dances in front of pretty scenery. Now we have a much more appropriate style in our ears.”

Beyond the dramatic and musical values paving the way for new appreciation of Gluck, there’s another appeal. “I think that audiences are very eager to enjoy myths,” remarked Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. “Witness the success all over America of the Ring. And there is no myth more interesting or relevant than that of the house of Atreus.” Susan Graham agreed. “When we did Iphigénie in Chicago, the administration was concerned that the audience didn’t know the opera. But at every performance they were on their feet screaming — it’s such an intensely compelling story.”
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About the Author: Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater. He is the author of Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.
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