Open Door Opera – Iphigenia

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A hot summer saturday evening by the river, the ideal moment for a bit of opera. I’d spent the day at a workshop on writing for young adults, and A, slogging over her book, so we were glad to be going out, and even more glad to be in the open air.  We planned to come to this show last week but ran out of energy after a rehearsal (and I’d remembered the time wrong, and it felt too much, so we left it and kept our fingers crossed it wouldn’t rain this week) so here we are sitting in the shade on ncushions we remembered to bring, having met up with Mona and waved at Lewis, waiting for the show to begin.

Open Door Opera are very much attuned to the absurdity of this prequel to the Trojan war, their chorus of Muses Servane le Moller (who plays the accordion, the sole musical instrument) Catherine Carter, Katie Slater, Joanna Harries, Danae Eleni and Alexandra Stevenson are chaotic and haphazardly dressed, running into the audience in search of costumes and giving the back story: apple, goddesses, most beautiful woman, abduction, war; at top speed before we settle into the action, and (relatively speaking) seriousness.

This show is loosely adapted from  Euripides, Racine and Gluck, by Lewis Reynolds.  I had expected a standard early music opera but in fact a lot of the script is spoken rather than sung. I’ve never read either Euripides nor Racine, and at times the language practically shouted translation!! (does my memory mean less to you than my life particularly smacked my ears) and its easier to hide that kind of thing in music but a lot of effort had gone into make it make sense, or as much sense as the story can make, because the fundamental problem with Iphigenia is that it is infuriating as well as tragic.

Agamemnon, brother of the cuckolded Menelaus, has gathered a vast army to sail to Troy, but the wind is wrong and won’t change.  If he doesn’t sail, the army will turn on him and his land and people, they have been promised plunder and they’ll have it, in Troy or here, they aren’t that bothered.

Agamemnon asks the gods for guidance and they demand a sacrifice: his daughter Iphigenia.  He sends word that Iffy (as her mother calls her) is to marry Achilles, to get her to come to the port, then has a change of heart and sends another letter (that does not reach her) saying Achilles has changed his mind.  Iffy arrives, with maidenly escort, and Mum, Clytemnestra, all pleased and excited.  Agamemnon grits his teeth and plays along, but then the messenger arrives, and gives her the second letter.  Iffy rows with Achilles, who cottons on to what’s really happening and has a rather ineffectual go at Agamemnon.  Agamemnon comes clean to Iffy, who eventually understands the cleft stick he is in, and agrees to be sacrificed. 

There is no getting round that “the gods’ will it” fatalism, and it does make all the human protestation seem rather puny, particularly when fighting against circling helicopters, tiresome teenagers and an imperfect outdoor arena.  (Mind you, excluding helicopters Euripides probably had the same issues, so I suppose it’s authentic.)  The Scoop has a reasonable acoustic but when the action went up onto the edge it might as well have been the other side of the river.

There are several strong points in this production:

David Durham’s Agamemnon:  Durham can act, and has quite a presence. He made a believable general and doting father, and has a good strong voice, more than equal to the difficult circumstances.

The muses: by turns absurd, threatening and disturbing.

Clytemnestra being played by several members of the cast.  I wasn’t quite sure about the wheelchair, but it did imply the powerlessness the queen feels in the face of her husband’s perfidy and cruelty.  Played initially by one of the young men, (who later takes a turn as Achilles, another role that’s shared out) as an excited but overbearing mother planning a wedding, as the story unravels and the truth is revealed, the role is taken on by David Ryall, who rages and glares as she realises what has been planned for her daughter, and finally by one of the muses, catatonic with shock and grief, as Iphigenia, in a state of teenage nihilism masquerading  as heroism, steps up for slaughter.  I really think this was a brilliantly thought out bit of casting, and gives the whole piece some weight, as it gives Clytemnestra centre stage, and foreshadows the doom awaiting Agamemnon ten years later when she finally gets her revenge.

The music.  I love Gluck, and the muses sang beautifully.  I also thought that the accordion worked extremely well to fill in for an entire orchestra.  I would happily have had more of the music and less speech.

Open Doors Opera work on the assumption that Opera works in any venue.  While this did work, there were longeurs while (I assume) the cast waited for someone to be in the right place in the vast space.  I would like to see it again, in a more intimate space, where the cast could relax a bit about being heard.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011