IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE
Tragédie lyrique in 4 acts
Libretto : Nicolas-François Guillard (1752–1814), after Euripides’ tragedy
First performed: Académie Royale de Musique (2e salle du Palais-Royal), 18 May 1779
Today is Mother’s Day. Here’s an important moral lesson: Don’t kill her.
- IPHIGÉNIE, high priestess (soprano dramatique)
- ORESTE, her brother (baritone)
- PYLADE, Greek prince, Orestes’ friend (tenor)
- THOAS, King of Tauris (basse chantante)
Rita Gorr, Nicolai Gedda, Ernest Blanc and Louis Quilico singing 40 minutes of extracts.
Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigenié en Aulide (1774), both Gluck operas based on Euripides. In the first opera, the gods ordered Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to get a wind to bring the Greek fleet to Troy. At the last moment, Diana (Artemis) snatched Iphigenia from the altar and brought her to a temple in Tauris, Scythia, where she serves the goddess as priestess.
The sequel focuses on three characters: Iphigenia; her guilt-ridden brother Orestes; and Pylades, his companion.
When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan Wars, his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus killed Agamemnon. To avenge his father, Orestes killed the pair, with the help of his sister Electra and Pylades. (See Strauss’s Elektra.) This new outrage has offended the gods, and the Furies and his mother’s ghost pursue Orestes.
In Tauride, Orestes and his friend Pylades have come to Tauris to steal a statue of Diana, which could cure his madness. The Tauri’s custom is to sacrifice every stranger who lands on their coast, because a prophecy warns that a stranger will kill their king Thoas. Iphigenia is ordered to sacrifice the two men; at the last moment, Iphigenia and Orestes recognize each other as siblings, Pylades kills Thoas, and Diana comes down from the heavens to sort out the whole mess.
Based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003
A storm whips the shores of Tauris. Iphigenia, high priestess of Diana, and her companions, implore the heavens’ mercy. But the return of the sun doesn’t ease Iphigenia’s torments: hasn’t she seen in a dream the palace of her ancestors, her father Agamemnon bleeding, her mother Clytemnestra in flight, Orestes, her brother a murderer, whom she herself punished in stabbing him through the breast? Fearing the curse which, from all time, has pursued her family, she beseeches Diana to let her rejoin her brother in death.
Thoas, king of Tauris, bursts into the temple; tortured by visions of death, since the oracle that predicted a stranger to the island would kill him, he wants to consult Iphigenia. And now the Scythians announce the arrival of two shipwreck survivors cast by the storm onto the shores of Tauris. They will be sacrificed, and Iphigenia will do the deed. The two young men refuse to answer Thoas’ questions.
Alone, the two prisoners reveal their identity to us: Orestes, prey to terrible remorse since killing his mother…
and his faithful friend Pylades who tries in vain to comfort him.
The Minister of the sanctuary comes announce their separation, news which they greet with cries of despair. Pylades is dragged away. Orestes, alone, exhausted, suddenly feels a strange peace.
It doesn’t last long: the pitiless Eumenides disturb his sleep, causing unspeakable nightmares.
Waking, he thinks he sees his mother before him. No, it’s the high priestess of Diana: Iphigenia. Without recognising each other, the brother and sister immediately feel a strange affinity. Questioned, Orestes reveals to Iphigenia his Mycenaean origins and the atrocious fate of the house of Agamemnon, claiming that the murderous son is dead. Seeing her worst fears come true, Iphigenia celebrates a funeral ceremony in memory of her brother.
Yielding to the prayers of her companions, Iphigenia decides to inform Electra, alone at Mycenae, that she still has a sister. She will confide this task to one of the strangers, whose life she will save in defiance of Thoas’ orders. Her choice has already fallen on he whose stricken face, since first sight, has touched her heart. The prisoners are brought in, and they embrace each other. Learning of Iphigenia’s project, each one hopes to save the other’s life. When Iphigenia announces her choice, Orestes refuses to accept it; alone with Pylades, he begs him to save his life, and to let him die, which Pylades refuses to contemplate.
Orestes has no other choice than to impose this sacrifice on him by threatening to reveal his identity to the priestess, before killing himself. Iphigenia agrees to the decision, in confiding to Pylades the the mission of carrying a message to Electra. Pylades swears to return in time to save Orestes.
Everything in Iphigenia resists her obligation to kill the young Greek. She asks Diana to strengthen her heart.
Nevertheless, seeing Orestes ready for the sacrifice, she cannot hold back her tears.
At the last instant, Orestes suddenly invokes the memory of his sister, Iphigenia, who perished in this way in Aulis. Hearing her name, Iphigenia recognises her brother, whom the priestesses hail as king. Their joy is short-lived; learning that Iphigenia has freed a prisoner, Thoas hurries to the temple at the head of his armies. Before he can kill Orestes and the priestess, Pylades bursts into the temple at the head of the Greeks, and deals him a mortal blow. The battle that follows is interrupted by Diana, who orders the Scythians to hand over their sacred statue to the Greeks; forgives Orestes, whom she proclaims king of Mycenae; and entrusts Iphigenia to his care.
Just as Western theatre began with Greek tragedy, opera, as we know it, begins with Gluck’s adaptations of Greek tragedy.
Gluck’s operas are a reaction against Baroque operas, extravagant vehicles for showpiece arias delivered by castrati. Gluck wanted “beautiful simplicity”; he believed that music should be the handmaiden of poetry; it should express feelings and situations truly. His style is one of “beautiful simplicity”: sober, restrained and dignified, without vocal ornamentation that calls attention to itself. Arias and duets arise from the drama, and often merge seamlessly into the recitative, as Wagner’s music dramas would do. He also used the orchestra to depict the subconscious – to the stupefaction of musicians.
“Le calme rentre dans mon cœur,” Orestes says in Act II ; “calm has returned to my heart” – but the strings play a repetitive, obsessive, unsettling phrase. The musicians thought they’d got hold of the wrong piece of music, and put down their instruments. “Keep playing,” ordered Gluck. “He’s lying; he killed his mother!” (Obligatory anecdote.) The Furies and Clytemnestra’s ghost appear, demanding vengeance. Two and a half centuries later, this is still one of the most extraordinary, psychologically intense scenes in opera.
Gluck was a model for the composers who followed him. Mozart admired his operas, and learnt from them. Berlioz worshipped Gluck: “There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck.” He considered Iphigénie en Tauride a masterpiece of the human spirit, and it was this work that inspired him to become a composer. Wagner saw Gluck as his great model for the music drama. (Listen to his almost Beethovenian arrangement of the mighty Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide.) Richard Strauss reorchestrated the opera for late 19th century tastes.
Iphigénie en Tauride is not merely of historical importance; it is a moving, humane opera of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Orestes and Iphigenia’s story is part of a generation-spanning curse on their house. Tantalus, their great-great-grandfather, killed his son Pelops and carved him up as a dish fit for the gods. The offended deities cursed Pelops and his clan. From generation to generation, brother warred against brother, wife betrayed husband, parents killed children, and children killed parents. Normal human relations have broken down. This opera shows their restoration.
Orestes is capable of love; he and his companion Pylades love each other (whether sexually or not is open to interpretation), and are willing to sacrifice their lives to save the other. But he is part of this cycle; he has killed his mother, and offended the natural order. “Vengeons et la nature et les dieux en courroux,” sing the Furies.
It is up to Iphigenia, the victim, the one innocent person left in the family, to make a moral choice. Her siblings have killed their mother; her hands are free from a kinsman’s blood. (She performs the sacrifices in Gluck’s opera, but in Euripides’ play, she only laves the victims.)
Iphigenia is ordered to kill a stranger, who turns out to be her brother. Something stops her. Forced to choose whether Orestes or Pylades will live, she chooses the former. For the first time in five generations, a kinsman does not spill another’s blood.
Diana comes down from heaven to tell the last of the Atreidae that the curse is over; the gods have forgiven them.
The 2011 Met production has an added, effective touch. The original ending may seem too pat to a modern audience. The gods, we feel in our secular age, can’t simply descend from heaven and order everyone to forgive each other; forgiveness must work in human terms.
Iphigenié, in the Met production, turns her back on Orestes. He has murdered her mother. She could murder him, in revenge, and the whole bloody cycle would begin again. But, as the last notes of the opera play, she embraces her brother, and lets go of her mother’s memory (represented by a yellow scarf). She chooses to forgive him.
And that act of forgiveness ends the revenge that blighted the family: Atreus’s revenge on his brother Thyestes, his son Aegisthus’s revenge on the Atreidae, Clytemnestra’s revenge on Agamemnon, Orestes and Electra’s revenge on Clytemnestra.
The family is reunited and whole again. Iphigénie, who lamented in her great aria “O malheureuse Iphigénie” that she had no relatives, has found her brother. Brother and sister are reunited, and free from blood guilt and the burden of revenge, they can face the future.
- Marc Minkowski, 1999, with Mireille Delunsch (Iphigénie), Simon Keenlyside (Oreste), Yann Beuron (Pylade), with Les Musiciens du Louvre (Deutsche Grammophon)
- John Eliot Gardiner, 1986, with Diana Montague, Thomas Allen, and John Aler, with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon (Philips / Decca)
To watch: The 2011 Met broadcast, with Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves. Domingo, at 70, really is too old for the part of Oreste, and his voice has lost its bloom, but the production is intense and moving.