March 18th, 2011

The Met in HD: Iphigénie en Tauride

On Wednesday evening, March 16, we went to the encore presentation of the Metropolitan Operas High-definition broadcast of Iphigénie en Tauride, by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Although Gluck's opera was written in 1779, and stands at the transition from Baroque to Classical opera, it sounds and feels very modern.

Iphigénie en Tauride (Iphegenia in Taurus) is a story spun off from the long tragic series of dramas of the House of Atreus. In The Iliad, we are told that King Agamemnon offended the goddess Diana, who sends plague to his camp, and contrary winds so that his ships cannot sail for Troy. Homer does not go into how the goddess was propitiated, but later writers expanded on the story setting out that Agamemnon was required to sacrifice one of his daughters, Iphegenia, to satisfy the angry goddess. This leads to further tragedy, when, after Agamemnon has returned from the war, his wife Clytemnestra murders him in revenge for her daughter's death. Their son, Orestes, in turn, avenges his father's murder by killing Clytemnestra, but is thereafter haunted by the Furies as a consequence of his mother's dying curse and having committed the crime of shedding his mother's blood. (The Greek gods, at least as portrayed by the tragedians, were good at setting up these damned if you do, damned if you don't situations--.)

The playwright Euripides, in the first of two plays, Iphegenia in Aulis, portrays the events leading up to and including the sacrifice, but proposes that Diana rescues the blameless girl at the last minute, substituting a deer in her place.

The second play, Iphigenia in Tauris, forms the basis for Gluck's opera. In the Met production, staged by Stephen Wadsworth, the action opens with a dream sequence in which Iphegénie relives the sacrifice and rescue. She is awakened where she is sleeping in the Temple of Diana in Tauris, among the Scythians, by a terrible storm. She and the other temple women pray to the gods for protection, some of the women performing a hectic dance that reminded me of a Shaker meeting filtered through Marat/Sade. This is in part because although the Scythians worship Diana, it is in a debased form, which requires them to sacrifice strangers to the goddess. Further, they do not deign to soil their own hands with foreign blood, so force Greek women to serve in the temple, which is also a prison and asylum for them. After the storm ends, Iphegénie (Mezzo Susan Graham), sings sadly about her life since Aulis, and prays that the gods would grant her death instead.

Enter King Thoas of the Scythians, worried about a new oracle that he must forthwith sacrifice some strangers or he will fall. When the news comes that two shipwrecked Greeks have been taken captive, he commands Iphegénie to perform the sacrifice once he, Thoas, is safely out of the way. 

The captives are brought in. When they have some time to themselves, we learn that they are Oreste (Placido Domingo) and his friend Pylade (Paul Groves). Neither Iphegénie nor Oreste recognize the other (it's been fifteen hard years for both of them, and of course Oreste thinks Iphegénie is dead--) and when Iphegénie asks for news of Agamemnon, Oreste relates the sad tale, but tells her that Oreste, too, is dead. Chained in a side room, Oreste is tormented by a vision of his monther viciously killing his father, and welcomes his impending death as an end to his torments. Iphegénie laments the destruction of her family, and determines to free one of the captives in order to get a letter to her surviving sister, Electra, in Greece.

Initially, Iphegénie decides that Oreste, for whom she feels an inexplicable sympathy, should escape, and Pylade be sacrificed. A lengthy debate follows, in which each friend insists on dying for the other. Finally, Oreste pursuades Pylade to escape and bear the priestess' letter, allowing Oreste to die and be at peace. However, once he has been shown the secret way out of the temple, Pylade vows to rescue his friend or die in the attempt, and vanishes into the night.

Iphegénie reluctantly prepares for the sacrifice, but cannot bring herself to do it, even when Oreste mounts the altar himself. When he sings, "Iphegénie, beloved sister, thus also did you perish at Aulide," Iphegénie realizes who he is, and reveals her identity to her incredulous brother.

Their reunion is interupted by news of the approach of King Thoas, who has learned of Pylade's escape, and is determined to make sure of the sacrifice of Oreste, even if he has to do it himself. Pylade bursts in at the head of a band of Greek sailors he has rallied, and Thoas is killed in the ensuing battle with his guards, thus fulfilling the oracle of his fall. The battle is ended by the descent of the goddess Diana, who declares that the Scythians have profaned her altars long enough, that they are to turn her idols over to the Greeks and release them, and that the gods have determined that Oreste has suffered enough, and his punishment is ended. He can return to Greece with  his friend and sister, and rule over the Myceneans as their King. Iphegénie, overcome with both grief at her losses and joy at their deliverance, weeps and rages before finally embracing Oreste as the curtain falls.

Although the Met General Manager came out before the performance and warned the audience that both Graham and Domingo had colds, we couldn't have told that from the singing we heard (although you could hear it in their intemission interviews).  Both singers gave their best, and it was beautiful to hear, and they were well matched by Paul Groves as Pylade. Apparently, these three are sort of a trevelling show for this opera, having performed it elsewhere many times, and their skill and abiltity in inhabiting the roles was there to see.

As befit the somber tone of the opera, the set was rather grim, with the stark temple confines painted a drying-blood color, echoed by the dresses of the attendant temple women, except Iphegénie, who has a gown of simple black that marks her out as the designated executioner. The only furnishing of the temple is the altar, black and blood stained. The women sleep on the stone floor, as comfortlessly as those they must eventually sacrifice. The overall costume design is rather no-time and no-place with most of the women's dresses being vaguely 19th century, Scythian men vaguely Asian, Thoas kind of Roman, and Oreste and Pylade in the kinds of sackcloth issued to theatrical shipwreck survivors, refugees, and beggars. That said, costumes didn't actually detract from the production, and Wadsworth's stage direction got as much "juice" as possible out of the opera's otherwise minimal action.

Gorgeously sung (in French, with subtitles), very well acted, and otherwise OK to look at, we very much enjoyed an opportunity to have seen this comparatively rare opera and were very glad we went.  This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.