Lyric Opera of Melbourne impress with a bold, fully realised production of rarely seen opera Iphigénie. A terrific concept, talented musicians and highly committed performers combine for a riveting piece of drama that has the audience enthralled throughout.
Such is the immersive nature of the dark, brooding production that audience members at the opening matinee performance soon forgot the gloriously sunny first day of spring outside and were transported to the tense, brutal atmosphere of Ancient Greece. The production remains in the original time and place, but is updated in terms of presentation with use of modern materials. Rob Sowinski’s design makes extensive use of plastic sheeting, with black plastic creating dark backgrounds and clear plastic used for a hazy effect. Excellent use is made of the Chapel off Chapel performance space, with a raised stage on four sides creating an orchestra pit in the centre flanked by tall scaffolding poles.
Lighting his own set, Sowinski adds significantly to the ominous air. Always drawing the eye to the action, Sowinski illuminates faces sufficiently despite the shadowy effect overall.
Owen Phillips and Charlotte Lane’s costume designs complement the dark, textured settings perfectly. An interesting mix of fabrics and styles, they come together to evoke the period most effectively. The dark blue to white dyed gradient of the women’s dresses are strikingly elegant. At one point, the ensemble appear as rabid Scythians, wearing rather incredible black plastic outfits that hide the face while still allowing the voice to flow forth freely.
Director Nate Gilkes has elicited performances of great impact and drama from his highly focused cast. Storytelling is crystal clear, and each performer in the company appears completely clear on their contribution to the action. The central dilemma of two friends facing the choice as to which will meet their doom is given serious weight, leading to a dramatic final climax sequence.
Conductor Pat Miller leads eleven musicians in a superb performance of Gluck’s truly beautiful music. Maintaining strong command over the players, Miller keeps the music driving at a brisk pace, also allowing plenty of character in their playing. Given the uniform strength of the vocal performances, Miller’s preparation of the singing is clearly exemplary.
The seven women of the ensemble sing exquisitely, also contributing to percussion at times. The four ensemble males have less to do but do it extremely well.
Caroline Vercoe gives a towering performance in the title role, maintaining an intense level of focus that lifts and inspires all around her. In superb, full-throated voice, Vercoe fills the house with glorious, passionate sound. An equally strong actor, Vercoe’s commitment to the character and action heightens the dramatic stakes immensely. Gorgeous mezzo-soprano and oboe duet “O Malheureuse Iphigénie!” is a sterling highlight.
Vercoe is ably supported by three male singers. Bruce Raggatt projects palpable menace as malevolent King Thoas. Paul Biencourt gives a sensitive portrayal of noble prisoner Pylades. Unfortunately, Biencourt seemed not to be in full voice for the opening performance, his voice experiencing a number of cracks. Michael Lampard sings with impressive power and volume as tormented prisoner Orestes, also presenting a compelling characterisation of a man consumed with guilt.
Audiences lamenting the absence of a broader spectrum of operas in the chocolate box seasons of larger companies should flock to see and hear this excellent production.
Iphigénie plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 7 September.
This review published on Theatre People 2 September 2013.