Kennedy Center opera “… (Iphigenia)” pushes the boundaries of music

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Opera in the 21st century has been radicalized and reinvented by new artists and musical languages, but nothing has really prepared me for the feverish dream of… (Iphigenia), a new book based on Euripides’ account of probable infanticide. Songwriters Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding have teamed up to unearth the bones of the myth and examine the motives not only of pater, King Agamemnon, but also of his daughter Iphigenia and women throughout history who this team says creative, must share a certain guilt in accepting such self-sacrifice.

There’s over 50 years of age difference between Wayne Shorter (88), considered the greatest living jazz composer, and Grammy Award-winning Esperanza Spalding, and they were working on opposite coasts for this collaboration. . Nevertheless, they spawned a creation that is already the subject of legends. It premiered last month in Boston and was performed this weekend in a crowded theater at the Eisenhower Kennedy Center.

Scene from ‘… (Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The opera began as a strange pastiche, even a parody: Full Metal Jacket meets Monty Python. Guys are suited for war in a barren landscape, the only element of the scene is a large stone altar against a canvas with a projection of the red sky. The men are restless, nervous and stuck in this windless landscape, unable to launch their war against the Trojans. Two brothers – rulers Agamemnon and Menelaos with their long “rock star” hair – are the only ones whose faces we can clearly see. Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Agamemnon and baritone Brad Walker as Menelaos have powerful vocal chops, as does tenor Samuel White as oracle / seer Kalchas. Kalchas roughly solves the Greeks’ dilemma caused by Agamemnon sparking the wrath of a goddess, by suggesting sacrificing the maiden to Artemis.

Enter Iphigénie, the soprano Nivi Ravi, dressed as a spring green flower child. She is hoisted onto the altar and, in slow motion, dad slices his daughter’s throat. The men applaud, each one raises an arm fist in the air, then in single file they run on the march in a double time jody. These fellow soldiers repeat the scene again. Enter another Iphigenia. Etc. It’s absurd, even going so far as to push inflated opera conventions with elephants, and the toxic masculinity is undoubtedly intentionally commonplace.

At one point, the men get drunk. The soldiers become fellowship boys, as they stumble and throw giant-sized red plastic cups, littering the stage. One of the soldiers walks across the scene from left to right with a flesh-colored plastic inflatable sex doll. The soldiers hurry, growling in a crocodile line and exit again.

esperanza spalding and cast of ‘… (Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The second part focuses on several Iphigenias. Each is color coded and each has its own sonic terrain. Sopranos Alexandra Smither in Iphigenia of the Light and Joanna Lynn-Jacobs in Iphigenia of the Sea are followed by mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra in Iphigenia Unbound. (The same singer later plays Opera Broadcast Host, trying too hard at this point in the opera to make the work relevant.) Most distinct is the saffron-clad Iphigeneia the Elder. Sharmay Musacchio is an unusual contralto that sets fire to the powder in terms of range and colors.

The stage space has opened. Baroque-style design elements by famous architect-designer Frank Gehry are projected from the air. Clouds ? They appear delicate in their light-catching translucency, but dangerous in their needle-like tips.

We suddenly realize that musically the creators have thrown away the rulebook. It’s not exactly jazz and certainly not what one has heard as a contemporary classic. He pushed the boundaries between the members of the creative team. (Caroline Shaw is given credit for composing female choral voices which form grouped chords, come into unison, and then play with a wide oscillating vibrato, so the overall effect is that of a destabilization of the voices, each Iphigenia threatening to take over from another Who’s in Whether it’s a score or an improvisation, it sounds like opera as an incantation.

Meanwhile, members of the Kennedy Center Orchestra in the Pit led by conductor Clark Rundell, in charge of additional orchestrations and musical dramaturgy, are mushrooming in polyrhythms and density.

Shorter delivered his most bubbling and slippery scores. This surprises you and I sometimes find myself lost in a musical labyrinth.

esperanza spalding in ‘… (Iphigenia).’ Photo by Jati Lindsay.

With something so ambitious, there is bound to be some nonsense. The character Usher, played by Brenda Pressley, walks through the debates. Elegantly dressed, she only speaks, a sort of guide-interpreter, and periodically exhorts one of the six Iphigenias to break the spell and get out of this mess. But as it drowns in the balance of sound (intentional?), I never understood its function.

There is no doubt that Spalding is fearless. I was amazed to realize that she was there in the Iphigenia mix. She stood out not only because she was dressed in a silver 21st century astronaut suit, but when she moved into her own solo work, she took to stylistic places, maybe. be even spiritual, which no one on the whole had ventured into. Buzzing, plunging into the resonating spaces of head and body, this artist, like Shorter, broke all the rules. She didn’t hesitate to cut the sound and explore deep space.

In the third part, the stage is even more stripped down to reveal the back walls, and there, to the right of the stage, a jazz trio has become the center of interest. The audience reveled in drinking three incredible jazz musicians – bassist John Patitucci, pianist Danilo Perez and drummer Brian Blade, whom Shorter brought together in 2000 for his quartet. For jazz lovers, these guys are kings. And what was the fit for the history of opera?

So is Shorter still mad after all these years? WTF. You bet.

Duration: About one hour 45 minutes, without intermission.

… (Iphigenia) performed on December 10 and 11, 2021 at the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC.

The digital program can be viewed here.

For a full list of Kennedy Center 50th Anniversary Season events, click here.

To learn more about the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, click here.


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