Iphegénie en Tauride, Metropolitan Opera live cinema relay, February 2011

The Trojan War informed Greek literature, which  then informed a European culture that read the great plays by Sophocles and Euripedes. They in turn inspired opera composers such as Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–87) whose new form of opera used music and drama to support one another in a way hitherto unseen. Gluck inspired Wagner, Berlioz and others, and when Iphégenie en Tauride was produced in a German version two years after its premiere in Paris, Mozart attended almost all the rehearsals.

Graham, Domingo and Groves

This was Gluck’s penultimate opera, and the purity of its music endows the story with enormous clarity. The background is that when Agamemnon was ready to embark with the Greek forces  to Troy he was denied a fair wind, and demands were made that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. He acceded and the ships set off. When he returned home ten years later his wife Klytemnestra killed him, and their daughter Elektra yearned for her brother Orestes to return and take vengeance on his mother. Orestes eventually made his return, committed the deed and was pursued by the furies. In the meantime, in a second version of the story by Euripedes, the goddess Artemis replaced the sacrificial Iphigeneia with a deer at the last moment, transporting the real one to the land of the Taurians, where it was her duty as a priestess to sacrifice any foreigners who landed on the shores of her new land.

In this excellent production by Stephen Wadsworth we see, just before the overture, Artemis intervene to save the life of the sacrificed Iphigeneia, and during the opera we also see the murder of Agamemnon by Klytemnestra, performed by two actors, appearing in a nightmare to Orestes. He was beautifully portrayed by Placido Domingo, well supported by Paul Groves as his comrade Pylades. With Susan Graham giving a wonderful performance as Iphigeneia, Domingo and Groves were superbly matched, and the stresses they suffer, as the two men vie for the honour of being sacrificed to let the other one go, were gloriously portrayed. All three were ably opposed by Gordon Hawkins as the wicked King Thoas of the Taurians.

Pylades and Orestes, all photos by Ken Howard

Gluck’s glorious opera, with its excellent libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard deserves a superb production, and it got it. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz were excellent, and the choreography for the Taurian soldiers, by Daniel Pelzig, was forcefully danced. These are Scythians from the central Asian steppe, so the Russian-style dancing was entirely appropriate. Gluck is little performed these days, but what a great opportunity this was to see one of his greatest operas, and with fine conducting by Patrick Summers, along with Domingo, Groves and Graham in the main roles one could hardly do better. Susan Graham gave a convincing portrayal of Iphigeneia’s attempts to sacrifice Orestes, and for a moment it looked as if the curse of Atreus would succeed in having her unwittingly kill her own brother. Fortunately she could not manage it, so Pylades had time to bring in Greek warriors to rescue Orestes, enabling him to return and rule his native Mycenae. In Greek tradition the furies (erinyes) were replaced by the eumenides, and Orestes was redeemed.

Iphigeneia and Orestes

This opera by Gluck gives a peerless representation of the conflicting emotions and tensions in this story, and as Schiller wrote, “Never has music moved me so purely and so beautifully as this music has done, it is a world of harmony that penetrates the very soul and causes it to dissolve in sweet and lofty sadness”.

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