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
For more information about the opera, see the dossier.
For reviews and criticism, see here.
Today is Mother’s Day. Here’s an important moral lesson: Don’t kill her.
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.
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.
- Overture, with chorus “Grands dieux, soyez-nous secourables” (Minkowski)
- “Cette nuit… O toi qui prolongeas mes jours”, Iphigénie’s account of her dream (Régine Crespin)
- “Dieux qui me poursuivez”, Oreste’s horrified outburst against the Furies (Robert Massard)
- “Unis dès la plus tendre enfance”, Pylade’s declaration of constant friendship to Oreste (Georges Thill)
- “Le calme rentre dans mon coeur” and “Vengeons et la nature et les dieux“, the chorus of the Furies (Simon Keenlyside and Les Musiciens du Louvre, in the Minkowski production)
- “O malheureuse Iphigénie”, Iphigénie’s lament that her brother is dead (Mireille Delunsch)
- “Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes”, Oreste and Pylade declare their willingness to die for the other (Nicolai Gedda and Ernest Blanc)
- “Divinités des grandes âmes”, Pylade resolves to rescue Oreste (Nicolai Gedda)
- “Non, cet affreux devoir… Je t’implore et je tremble”, Iphigénie asks Diane to give her the ferocity to perform the sacrifice (Rita Gorr)
- “Chaste fille de Latone“, the priestesses’ chorus (Gardiner production)
Listen to Rita Gorr, Nicolai Gedda, Ernest Blanc and Louis Quilico singing 40 minutes of extracts.