By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note this can be streamed from the Met at www.metopera.org
Wednesday, June 17
Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride ~ 1 Hr. 55 Mins
Conducted by Patrick Summers, starring Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Gordon Hawkins, and Paul Groves. Transmitted live on February 26, 2011.
One of Gluck’s last operatic works, Iphigénie en Tauride recounts a story from Greek mythology concerning Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia (Iphigénie in French) and her time in Tauris (basically, Crimea) as a captive priestess of Diana (Diane in French – but much more correctly, Artemis – since these are Greeks we’re talking about here). The story revolves around Iphigenia’s unknowing reunion with her brother, Orestes (Oreste in French) who fled Mycenae after killing their mother Clytemnestra. Since the Scythians, who inhabit Tauris, make it a practice to sacrifice any Greeks who happen to come to their shores, the unfortunate Orestes and his friend Pylades, who have come to retrieve a stolen statue of Diana, are captured and handed to Iphigenia who these days has the truly nasty job of performing the frequent human sacrifices to her goddess called for by the Scythian’s bloody King Thoas – and so Orestes is slated to be her next victim. With Gluck’s characteristic lyricism and directness, the composer provides a genuinely affecting musical setting for another episode in this amazingly ill-starred, dysfunctional family’s bloody history. On with today’s (soap) opera!
Susan Graham is Iphigenia (we’ve seen her very recently as Dido in Les Troyens, so she’s certainly used to life in this time period) and Plácido Domingo is Orestes, currently being driven mad by the Furies who are still punishing him for the killing of his mother (you may remember Strauss’s Elektra a few weeks ago in which he did that deed). So, to recap – Orestes is the kid who killed his mother, Clytemnestra, because she killed his father, Agamemnon, because he supposedly killed their daughter, Iphigenia (Orestes’ sister)…. and now, the not actually dead Iphigenia has been ordered to (unknowingly) sacrifice her brother, Orestes ….got that!
The curtain rises on the sacrificial chamber in the temple at Tauride. Iphigenia and the other captive Greek priestesses are asleep. Suddenly Iphigenia screams in terror and her nightmare is re-enacted for us to catch us up on her story: a young virgin (Iphigenia, herself) is seized, carried struggling, and thrown on an altar. As a priest raises his arm, Diana appears above him, is lowered on an invisible wire, and snatches her from under the descending knife; they are both raised up into the blackness, and disappear as the music begins with a wonderful thunderstorm interlude. The music builds to one crashing climax after another complete with brilliant lightning flashes until it eventually subsides, becoming peaceful and serene as the storm ends. The priestesses are all terrified, believing that the storm signifies the gods are angry. Iphigenia relates more of her dream to them which includes her brother Orestes crying out for her help as she is forced to kill him. Again, Iphigenia is distressed and wishes only for her own death.
King Thoas (Gordon Hawkins) marches in with his henchmen and proclaims in a suitably evil bass voice that the gods’ anger demands more blood. Right on cue a messenger enters with the news that two shipwrecked Greeks have been discovered and subdued with great difficulty, although one seems half-mad. As he exits, Thoas orders Iphigenia not to waste any time in sacrificing them both. Iphigenia once again laments her 15 years of captivity and being forced to kill innocent captives. The Greeks, of course, are Orestes and his bosom pal Pylades (Paul Grove), but neither sister nor brother recognize the other, and no names are exchanged. End of Act I; and there still are three more to go – although this is quite a short opera.
Act II takes place in a sort of cell off the main hall that holds the sacrificial altar of the previous act. Pylades and Orestes are chained to opposite walls but have a lengthy conversation – in song, of course. Orestes is happy that he will die; it’s the only way that he can escape the furies who mercilessly pursue him. His only regret is that he has caused the death of his friend Pylades – Nonsense, says Pylades, my greatest joy is that I shall be with you as I die. This basic conversation over who will live and who will die repeats itself several times during the next two acts. Iphigenia, having heard the captives are from her home in Argos, questions Orestes about events in the 15 years she has been away – but neither tells the other who they actually are – and Orestes even tells her that the entire royal family except Electra is dead. In her grief, Iphigenia and her priestesses perform a funeral for Orestes.
By Act III, Orestes keeps feeling that Iphigenia reminds him of his mother and Iphigenia keeps feeling that Orestes (whose name she still does not know) reminds her of her brother…. she hatches a plan to save one of the Greeks so he can take a message from her to her sister Electra in Argos. She sits between the two of them at the base of the altar and tells them her plan. She makes both promise that the one who escapes will deliver the letter. Orestes sings that he’s more than happy to die and now doubly happy that his death will spare his friend’s life. Pylades sings that no way could he live at the expense of his friend’s life and his greatest joy will be to save Orestes’ life by giving his own. Iphigenia sings that she wishes she could save both but just can’t, so she must choose one, but absolutely can’t decide which. There follows several minutes of beautiful music in which all three repeat themselves several times with no change of position.
In the final act, it is Pylades who ‘wins’ the coin toss and is helped to escape (vowing to return) while Orestes is to be executed (and it is particularly important to remember here that the brother and sister still each believe that the other is dead – yes, I know, it’s a bit of a stretch), but there’s just something about this particular stranger, and Iphigenia can’t bring herself to kill him. Orestes tries to help her saying can’t you see that I want you to kill me because ‘Iphigenia, my beloved sister, thus also did perish at Aulis.’ Finally – a big enough hint – and blessed recognition! — For a brief moment all is joy as brother and sister are reunited. But . . . of course, Thoas rushes in more than a little peeved to find one prisoner escaped and the other still alive and is about to execute both. But bedlam ensues as Pylades bursts in with a bunch of freed Greek slaves …. and I’ve waited for nearly 80 operas to be able to say this … it’s a true deus ex machina moment – or more correctly a dea ex machina moment as Diana once again drops in and halts the fight – sending all concerned peacefully back to their own respective kingdoms.
So a genuinely happy ending and a good time is had by all… and this time with no dramatic love triangle – in fact, no love interest at all- no couple, no triangle, no quadrangle – nada… wonderful music, compelling drama and not a whit of romantic love — an exceptional opera with an exceptional cast…
1. Susan Graham as Iphigenia and Plácido Domingo as Orestes in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
2. Gordon Hawkins as Thoas in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
3. Paul Groves as Pylades and Plácido Domingo as Orestes in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.
4. Susan Graham as Iphigenia and Plácido Domingo as Orestes in Gluck’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” at the Met. Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met Opera.