Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding’s opera …(Iphigenia) begins with a woman dropping dead. Even in opera’s greatest tragedies the bodies don’t usually start piling up quite this soon. As it turns out, though, a body count drives the entire first act of …(Iphigenia). By its end, we’ve seen the killing of five women and two deer—and one of the deer has transformed into a woman who is marked for death. The women, though each is dressed in a different and very bright color, are all named Iphigenia. They’re distinctive and they shine, especially in contrast to the earthtones of Frank Gehry’s set (yes, that Frank Gehry) and the costumes of the Greek soldiers that the males play. In the men’s eyes, though, they are interchangeable, with no purpose other than to be ritually sacrificed.
A long-cherished dream of Shorter’s, the opera (based on Euripides’ classical play Iphigenia at Aulis) premiered in November at ArtsEmerson in Boston. But Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was one of five co-commissioners of the project, and it got the honor of the second performance. Reports suggest that at least some revisions took place following the Boston premiere, which makes the Kennedy Center performances on December 10 and 11 the premiere of a different version of the opera. Whatever the differences, the one at KenCen’s Eisenhower Theater was riveting, fascinating, and rich with possible meanings.
The music, of course, was the best dimension. It comes as no surprise that Shorter has mastered the language of opera as surely as he has his own harmonic language. Both languages intertwine from the opening notes of the overture. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra led the charge, playing orchestrations (also written by Shorter) that were both classic and thoroughly fresh—and entirely in Shorter’s idiom.
As the second act opened, however, a scrim on the stage fell away, revealing among other things the rhythm section of Shorter’s longtime quartet—pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade—playing parts that were as complex as the orchestra’s, if a bit less strictly on-the-page. In fact, the production’s falling action coincided with the three players going into a hectic, intense free improvisation. (There was also literal action from the cast—although it was nearly as amorphous and open to interpretation as the band’s improv was.)
All this said, Spalding’s work is an even more prominent part of …(Iphigenia). She wrote the libretto—which diverges from Euripides enough that this writer is wary of giving spoilers—and sang the lead role of the Iphigenia transformed from a deer (billed in the program as Iphigenia of the Open Tense). The former could be a little florid at first glance; still, it was florid in a way that linked it to classical Greek poets and that provided food for thought.
The latter was a weak point in the production. As an opera singer, Spalding showed impressive technique and unexpected range; her voice, however, doesn’t have the power that opera requires. It’s possible that this was deliberate: Much of Spalding’s performance surrounds her with the other female vocalists (the other Iphigenias), acting as the student to their teachers, and thus would naturally be less strong and assured. Even so, her weaker voice was apparent even when she wasn’t surrounded by other Iphigenias—and far from the standard for a lead.
There was enough about the production that was terrific, though, to divert attention from this. Gehry’s designs were typically eye-grabbing, if not typically architectural, and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction was keenly focused on detail. (An odd present-day moment at the start of Act 3 breaks the fourth wall, but gets played for laughs and confusion in a way that preserves the mise-en-scène.) Yet it’s no insult to the opera to say that the most moving moment of the evening came during the ovation, when a frail 88-year-old Wayne Shorter was wheeled onto the stage. The presence of the maestro was all over …(Iphigenia) anyway, but his physical presence elevated it even further.