It always seems to happen in these mythological operas. Everything seems like it’s settled, the characters’ fates are sealed, and suddenly a deus ex machina shows up to save the day.
This certainly holds true in Gluck’s “Iphigenié en Tauride,” in which the goddess Diana (the Roman equivalent of Artemis) miraculously appears to clear up complications within a few bars of music. But it also applies to Boston Baroque’s production of the same opera, which opened its three-show stand at GBH’s Calderwood Studio on Thursday evening.
In this case, the machina was an airplane from Greece, and the deus in it was Greek-Canadian dramatic soprano Soula Parassidis, who cut her Greek Easter celebrations short to jump into the role after the acclaimed Wagnerian soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer abruptly withdrew on Sunday due to a medical emergency. Parassidis, who sang the role at a Maria Callas centennial event in Athens last month, spent all of Monday traveling, landed at Logan early on Tuesday, and made her company debut on Thursday, her birthday.
The result was an unambiguous triumph for Boston Baroque, conductor Martin Pearlman, and stage director Mo Zhou. Dramatically, Parassidis clicked with her fellow principals so gracefully that it was impossible to tell she had had only one day of rehearsals. Vocally, she was incandescent. A regal but subtle thread of steel anchored her voice throughout all the torments the title character endured during the opera’s two-hour runtime.
Of those, there are many. The opera is based on the ancient play of the same title by Euripides, which imagines the fate of the mythological Mycenaean princess Iphigenia after her father Agamemnon sacrificed her to Artemis as recompense after he killed a sacred deer. The goddess spirited her away to be a priestess in the land of the Taurians, where the local cult of Artemis sacrifices any Greeks unlucky enough to get shipwrecked. She has been in exile for a while when the plot begins, and she is on sacrifice duty when her brother Orestes, whom she thinks is dead, and his companion Pylades wash up. (The opera uses the French spellings of their names.)
It takes 2½ acts before the long-lost siblings recognize each other, and she is perpetually haunted by bloody visions until then. Camilla Tassi’s striking projections gave these scenes some effective visual variety, but Parassidis’s superb abilities as a singing actress plunged the audience into the psychological drama. It was impossible not to feel what she felt, overused as some of the plot devices might be.
The other principal cast members were also excellent. Baritone Jesse Blumberg, a mainstay of the Boston opera scene, matched Parassidis’s affect of haunted nobility. Profound sweetness was at the heart of his voice in all his interactions with both Parassidis’s tough Iphigénie and tenor William Burden’s ardent, devoted Pylade, whose aria “Unis dès la plus tendre enfance” was one of the evening’s highlights. Ostensibly, there’s no love interest in this opera, but I’ve seen Toscas and Cavaradossis whose onstage kisses made fewer sparks fly than the tender embraces of Burden’s Pylade and Blumberg’s Oreste.
Soprano Angela Yam was radiant in her short appearance as the goddess Diana, and the unfailingly versatile local baritone David McFerrin made a mighty Thoas, the tyrannical king of the Taurians. Unfortunately, his death scene at the rear of the rectangular runway stage was almost invisible behind the orchestra.
And there — in the space, not the people in it — can be found all of the problems with this “Iphigénie.” As live performances returned after the pandemic’s dark season, Boston Baroque solidified a partnership with GBH, where Calderwood allows for more elaborate stagecraft and livestream technology than the company was able to deploy in Jordan Hall. However, if this show doesn’t prove it nothing will: Calderwood is just not a great space for opera. For one, the smallish audience was seated at floor level with the stage elevated, so action at the rear of the stage was always at least partially obscured by the orchestra and Pearlman, who turned out excellent performances in their own right but clearly were not intended to be the visual focus. The air ducts overhead also added distracting metallic reverberations on top of the singers’ voices in several moments.
Boston Baroque seems to be doubling down on its commitment to staged opera. This “Iphigénie” follows last year’s stand of Handel’s “Amadigi di Gaula,” also at Calderwood, and next season’s schedule includes a “Don Giovanni” at the Huntington Theatre, which has its own acoustic weaknesses. And so the company seems poised to join the ranks of Boston Lyric Opera, Odyssey Opera, and anyone else searching for a workable space to stage an opera in Boston. A pity there’s no deus ex machina for that.
IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE
Presented by Boston Baroque. At Calderwood Studio at GBH. April 20. Repeats April 21 and 23. Available to stream on IDAGIO until May 21. 617-987-8600, http://baroque.boston