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The New England Conservatory of Music’s opera delights

The top singers and the Philharmonia of the New England Conservatory of Music performed a moving version of “Iphigénie en Tauride.”

First performed in 1779, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera tells the fate of Agamemnon’s family in the years following the Trojan War. In the usual Greek myth, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, upon which his son avenges Agamemnon’s death by murdering his own mother. Meanwhile, Agamemnon’s daughter foreshadows the entire tragedy in her nightmares. The opera unfolds as the two siblings finally meet after years of separation. Based on Euripides’ “Iphigenia in Tauris” originally written in ancient Greek just before 400 BCE, “Iphigénie en Tauride” has been referred to as the “first opera without love” for its tragic rather than romantic plot, and as Gluck’s best opera for its smooth stitching of story and musical score.

Set in front of Jordan Hall’s monstrous organ, the stage frames the opera with antique framed wood and metalwork. The space is high reaching and vacant, with a large curved ceiling and sparse wooden seating. The sound of the music reverberated against the far walls and filled the space with beautiful warmth.

With Conductor Stephen Lord swaying his hand to the meter and the uniform movement of bows against instruments, the audience was beckoned to lean forward in their chairs. From the beginning of the performance until the very end, the audience was enthralled by the musicianship both in the level of musical excellence and in the elegance and calm in which the opera was displayed.

When the first vocalist began to sing, chills ran down my spine. Her voice extended throughout the theater, dramatic and clear amidst the sound of the strings. A large and dull screen was displayed behind her which read the lyrics that correlated with her performance, which were sung in French and subtitled for the audience in English.

Despite the antiquity of the opera and the venue, the performance was very much alive. An audience of all backgrounds and ages sat attentively, fully engaged with the music in a way that appeared very unique to this genre. The acting of the opera singers saw no dull moment. I could feel the tension, irony, pain, fury, suffering and joy all in quick succession as the plot unfolded. Each singer’s voice paired perfectly with the next, each with their own distinct tone and timbre. The general chorus dressed barefoot and in simple cloth robes, while the two main characters were in simple dress shirts and jeans, with Iphigénie in a lovely but simple gown. Although plain in stage, scenery and props, the facial expressions of the performers and their swift movements contributed to a full and dramatic understanding of the unfolding scenes. The use of simple wooden benches to represent Orestes’ jail and the subtle dimming and brightening of lights in lieu of dramatic stage effects added no unnecessary frills to a sufficiently full performance.

Throughout the opera, the performers never broke character. Transitions were seamless in between moments of sadness or joy, major or minor scales; the orchestra and singers were fantastic at picking up cues from one another. With such a seamless performance, time flew by, leaving you wanting the opera to progress further. Each moment of the performance lent itself to further thought. I would recommend this performance for those new to watching operas and avid opera fans alike. For a newcomer, the subtitles and accessible plot will have you falling in love with the genre as a whole. For an opera frequenter, “Iphigénie en Tauride” is certainly Gluck’s best.

The New England Conservatory of Music offers a host of free performances such as this one throughout the year. Performances are always open to the public and are often free, giving the Brandeis community an excellent activity in Boston. Whether intrigued by the awe-inspiring Greek plot, the renowned classical music or simply the chance to head to Boston for a free concert, “Iphegénie en Tauride” is a transformative performance.

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