In Seattle Opera's Iphigenia in Tauris, composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and director Stephen Wadsworth spin out a slender plot into two of the most absorbing hours of opera in memory. The story is taken from Euripides, and in a brief but breathtaking prologue, the title character is rescued from the sacrificial altar by Diana, the two of them silently whooshing into the air. As the opera opens, Iphigenia has become a priestess in far-off Tauris. Charged with the killing of two prisoners—ironically ordered to inflict upon them the fate she escaped—she agonizes over the deed until her connection to them is revealed.
Iphigenia in Tauris Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 389-7676, www.seattleopera.org. $25–$162. Six more performances through Oct. 27.
A corps of 10 contributes dance interludes, choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, and the spirit of dance suffuses the whole production, with singers echoing the dancers' gestures: an arm circling the head like an orbiting planet, the heel of the hand bumping the forehead in a move suggesting muted anguish. As allegory, the cast's intense emotionalism is in conflict with this stylized, restrained movement, just as their characters' individual passions clash with implacable forces. As stagecraft, it's ravishing, blending formal classicism and affecting expressivity exactly as Gluck's 1779 score does.
The power and nuance both of Nuccia Focile's voice and stage presence make her a commanding Iphigenia, in a portrayal of magnificent commitment and courage. Tenor William Burden sings Pylades with thrilling emotional immediacy and beauty, pairing well with rich-voiced baritone Brett Polegato as co-captive Orestes. As Thoas, the Taurean king, Phillip Joll makes a juicy villain, but sings with the sort of vibrato that's difficult to distinguish from unsteadiness of pitch.
Thomas Lynch's set, a vault of what looks like hammered bronze, is matched by Martin Pakledinaz' costumes, stitched mainly in deep reds and golds. With Gary Thor Wedow conducting, and the addition of John Lenti and Philip Kelsey on theorbo and harpsichord, the Seattle Symphony sounds especially dreamy. This near-perfectly balanced combination of music, spectacle, and movement is as close as I've ever seen Seattle Opera come to the sort of "total art work" that the idealistic Gluck inspired his devotee Richard Wagner to strive for.