Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, on the site of the villa of Pauline Bonaparte, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital. A sleepy papal city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims) in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the “leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a “futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an improbably grandiose ceiling mural – what opera features a charioteer mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas – who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic from this very stage.
The less pricy seats go fast and it is illegal to re-sell them on the plaza, but it is not illegal to buy, so I held up a sign and got one in a box on March 24 (despite a hailstorm) and a place in the gallery on March 26.
The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said, “You’re lucky you came tonight – it was probably your last chance – they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I got to a second performance. Yes, it was worth a second hearing.
In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged (conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece. There was also something brand new called Il Re Nudo, but I didn’t even look into that.
Iphigénie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience – the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias, and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by applause on two occasions – an outburst for Iphigénie’s great Act III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,” near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled. As for the younger ones – at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.
Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again (Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape, tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than Gluck’s stately verses permitted – since I’d spent the day observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in 1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.
Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in the portico of the house – and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the 26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the house – this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to, and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.
However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira Stoyanova – little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller and La Juive.
Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of Iphigénie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that Iphigénie has proved heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the dignity of the Comédie Française. There was a lovely moment when, having been presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, Iphigénie, in private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up à la Grecque. (She looked far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)
Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of the stage whenever they have a lot to sing – a courtesy singers delight in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one, to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or angry choruses was very well managed.
Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists (in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of Iphigénie’s transference to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the occasion – from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the conclusion of Tannhäuser – but left those of us familiar with Iphigénie en Tauride more comfortable.