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‘. . . (Iphigenia)’ is an opera in the form of a question

The Iphigenia sacrifice scene in Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding's “. . . (Iphigenia)” at the Kennedy Center. (Jon Fine)
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“Uncompromising” is a weird word to have first and foremost in your mind at the end of an opera experience. It sounds equal parts heavily loaded and carefully measured; euphemistically shady yet gallingly neutral. (And all the while, it’s praise.)

But so it was at the confounding conclusion of “. . . (Iphigenia),” the more-than-typographically adventurous new opera born of a collaboration between jazz legend Wayne Shorter and the multitalented singer, bassist, composer and, here, librettist and performer Esperanza Spalding.

“Uncompromising” could refer to the production itself — a self-started, independently steered affair created through Spalding’s production company, Real Magic (in association with Cath Brittan and Octopus Theatricals). This hands-on/tentacles-off approach seems to have protected the production from what I assume would have been attempts to tame it, i.e., make it make sense.

“Uncompromising” could also describe the work that churns at the core of “. . . (Iphigenia)” and served as the opera’s primordial pool of origin — a teeming, beautifully complex score from Shorter, played on Friday with sprightly energy, wit and grit by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led by Clark Rundell. Shorter’s breadth of style and depth of color was stunning throughout, his music moving from busy background bustles (that sound inspired by his deep love of cinema) into sinuous stretches of elegant jazz and on into blue tangles of improvisation. Shorter’s score suffused the opera with a kind of wild, mythic weather.

But the sense of “uncompromising” I most had in mind when exiting was inspired by the now-jarring feeling of experiencing art that wasn’t somehow concerned with fluffing my seat cushion, welcoming me back, celebrating the performing arts in general and making constant reference to something called “normal.”

“. . . (Iphigenia)” was good old-fashioned avant-garde, what-the-hell-is-happening-right-now opera with a question mark. It methodically perplexed, frustrated, amused, entranced, challenged and delighted me. And when it was through, it just kind of ghosted. (Plenty of operas end with questions. This one ended as one.)

New opera by Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter remakes myth without sacrificing music

A full house at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Friday lost only a few early bailers who remembered (right around the time an unidentified character bounded across the stage carrying an inflatable sex doll like a surfboard) that they may have left the iron on.

The rest of us were in it for a three-act arc that felt more like a combination of a poetry reading and a Mobius strip: A first act of pumped-up operatic peplum, intentionally oversteeped in sword-and-sandal camp, and measured out in the sacrificial executions of multiple Iphigenias. A second act that drops the machismo of Act I, as well as the scrim that concealed Shorter’s core trio of pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. And a final act that attempts to reconstruct something new from its own ruins.

If there is a focus to “. . . (Iphigenia),” it’s to throw the myth of Iphigenia out of focus. In that myth, the daughter of King Agamemnon and Clytemnestra is sacrificed to appease a seriously peeved Artemis, who in her anger over a slaughtered sacred deer has starved the Grecian army’s sails of the wind they require to sail to Troy.

In Spalding and Shorter’s vision, she is split as though through a prism into six selves, all of them “different manifestations of the myth.” These iterations of Iphigenia become aware of themselves thanks to the interventions of a fourth-wall-crossing Usher (Brenda Pressley), who, before curtain, roamed the aisles and spoke to audience members, her voice lightly amplified through the din of the house.

“You know the story of Iphigenia?” she asked the row behind me. “Folks killing their child! This one’s gonna be different.”

Thus, artifice becomes this opera’s essence, a choice from which it steadily struggles to recover, though not without its pleasures. The libretto is light and limber, a mix of Spalding’s richly rendered poetry and additional texts from Ganavya Doraiswamy, Joy Harjo and Safiya Sinclair, with excerpts from Charles S. Elgutter’s 1904 play in four acts, “Iphigenia.” Frank Gehry’s mobile set design (a sky full of withheld wind) and Jen Schriever’s evocative use of lighting both contributed to a mythic vibe that felt appropriately unstuck in time.

But it suffers from long stretches of the staging where nothing happens at all, save Shorter’s music. Spalding’s iridescently jumpsuited Iphigenia of the Open Tense had some gorgeous vocal moments: The heroine’s discovery of selfhood is expressed through Spalding pushing through the husk of operatic form and blooming into long improvisatory incantations. But for a character whose reimagining centers on a reclamation of agency, she spends long stretches of time onstage just watching the opera happen around her.

Spalding’s companion chorus of Iphigenias was beautifully sung throughout by soprano Nivi Ravi (making her professional debut) as Iphigenia the Younger; soprano Alexandra Smither as Iphigenia of the Light; “singer and mover” Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Iphigenia of the Sea; mezzo-soprano Kelly Guerra as Iphigenia Unbound, Opera Broadcast Host; and contralto Sharmay Musacchio as Iphigenia the Elder.

Musically, the secret star of the show may have been composer Caroline Shaw, whose arrangements for the chorus of Iphigenias coiled into a luminous braid that pulled, stretched and whipped from one register to another, like a leaf caught in one of Artemis’s updrafts. Atop the landscape of Shorter’s often jagged and halting score, they lent a silken texture; and deployed in a staging that was often too static, they brought welcome movement. (Fans of Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” will find familiar terrain here.)

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Agamemnon, baritone Brad Walker as Menelaos and tenor Samuel White as Kalchas all gave strong vocal performances. But the puncturing of the opera’s surface so early made it hard to know where to situate them, adrift with no wind between the comic and tragic.

It’s one thing to deconstruct a myth, but what should one do with all of the fragments left behind?

“. . . (Iphigenia)” has the deconstruction part down, but what it creates from the wreckage feels unfinished, unsettled — an uncertainty I’m certain is part of the point.

In any event (and at any event) it feels good to be challenged once again. I’m one of those people who believes audiences need to show up ready to do half the work. As a rather standard-issue White dude, I embrace my place as the primary audience for the discomfort and disorientation required by works that explicitly aim to dismantle centuries of patriarchal framing. More into it, I could not be.

But in setting “. . . (Iphigenia)” free, we’re also left with a myth unbound, its energy dissipated, its pages all flying around, its story stuck on the shores. And that doesn’t seem like too fair a sacrifice, either.

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