Opera Reviews
12 May 2021
Untitled Document
Iphigénie en Tauride returns in style to the Met after 90 years
by Steve Cohen

Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
Metropolitan Opera
December 2007

Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan OperaThe new production of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Metropolitan Opera makes a strong argument for inclusion in the repertoire, not just now but in years ahead. This is Christoph Willibald Gluck's French opera, known in English as Iphigenia in Tauris, dating from 1779 and based on Euripides Greek play. It was previously performed at the Metropolitan in only one season, 1916-17, and that was a German version edited by Richard Strauss.

The music is powerful in its simplicity, the story is human – even though the characters include the gods – and it provides wonderful opportunities for singing actors.

The staging, sets and costumes are a CO-production with the Seattle Opera, but the cast and conductors are different in each city. In New York, Susan Graham surpasses even her own high standards with a stunning portrayal of Iphigénie. Her voice is expressive, lustrous and unforced.

Plácido Domingo plays Oreste. This is luxury casting, but it is not a frivolous stunt. It is worth his time and ours because Domingo brings a stage presence and a weighty vocal tone that’s appropriate for this long-lost son of Agamemnon, who is back (indirectly and unknowingly, at first) to rescue another one of his sisters. Other singers could encompass the vocal range but few could bring the gravity and charisma that Domingo does.

This original version of the opera was written for a baritone as Oreste, but remember that the custom in operas before the 1800s was that tenors do not sing as high, nor do baritones range as low as in later history. When Gluck revised his opera into a German-language version two years after its premiere he changed some of the notes in Oreste’s vocal line, sometimes by an octave, sometimes less, and he assigned it to a tenor. Domingo sings those higher notes. In duet with his friend, Domingo provides close harmony, often just a third lower. It would make a tempting headline to say that Domingo is singing baritone, but not accurate, and the distinction between the two versions doesn’t make much of a difference.

Let’s take a moment to speak of this family. Agamemnon is the hero of the Trojan War who prayed to the goddess Diana to send favorable winds for him and his Greek army, and he accepted Diana’s condition that he sacrifice his daughter Iphigénie. In order to trick Iphigénie into coming to the sacrificial altar, Agamemnon sent word to his wife, Clytemnestra, that Iphigénie was to marry the handsome hero Achilles. Thus Clytemnestra brought her daughter to what turned out to be her murder by the hand of her own father.

When Agamemnon returns from war he is killed by his wife and her lover. Agamemnon’s only son, Oreste, flees and is believed to be dead, like Iphigénie. Oreste’s sisters Electra and Chrysothames remain in the palace until the fateful night when Oreste returns and kills his mother and her lover to avenge Agamemnon. At the end of Strauss’s opera on the subject, Electra dances herself to death.

But in Iphigénie en Tauride, Euripdes imagined that Diana saved Iphigénie and delivered her to distant Tauris, where she served the enemy Scythians as Diana’s high priestess. In this play Euripides imagined, also, that Electra was still alive. Then two Greeks land on the island, are condemned to die, and Iphigenia is assigned the task of executing them. Oreste, as you surely have guessed, is one of those two doomed men.

This production by Stephen Wadsworth starts with a coup de théâtre that is not to be missed. We see the young Iphigénie about to be stabbed to death on an altar. She is rescued by what appears to be an angel. It is Diana, who lifts Iphigénie and literally flies away with her. Then the action jumps ahead 15 years to the story proper.

Stark questions confront us: Will either the brother or the sister, parted in youth, recognize the other? Will Iphigénie kill her brother? Will Oreste resist being saved and insist on dying because of his sense of guilt over the slaying of his mother? Will the curse that has doomed this family once again exert its power?

Of all the plays and operas on the subject, this one makes the most intimate human appeal. Gluck’s music, which he intentionally sought to keep simple, matches the mood.

Don’t think that simplicity leads to boredom; far from it. Opportunities exist for storms and for sword-fights, but the plight of three people remains front and center. These are the brother and sister and Oreste’s friend, who is played by tenor Paul Groves. Groves has won admirers for his Pylade but I must point out that his voice does not have the color of Graham’s nor Domingo’s. A tenor with a richer sound like, for instance, the French-speaking Roberto Alagna, could lift the production to an even higher level.

William Shimell has a commanding deep voice as the Scythian king, Thoas, and Michele Losier is a sympathetic and attractive Diana. (She’s the only person in the cast who appeared in Seattle as well as here in New York.)

Louis Langrée brings power and drama, in addition to French style, to the podium and the Met orchestra plays this unfamiliar music with beauty. The chorus is excellent, and well-choreographed dances by Daniel Pelzig add meaning to the drama. The sets and costumes suggest Flemish painting rather than ancient Grecian art. That’s fine. The shades of somber reds and browns suit the mood and they can be justified as being closer to the period in which Gluck composed the music.

Wadsworth’s direction is super, communicating the feeling of Greek tragedy while not hamming it up. His two most original touches come at the start and the end. First, that rescue previously described; then, at the end, a dramatization of Iphigénie’s mixed feelings about her family. Conventional staging has everyone rejoice at the reuniting of brother and sister. Here, as dancers prance upstage, we see Iphigénie having a hard time dealing with the internecine murders about which she has just heard. Keep in mind: for all these years she knew nothing about her mother’s infidelity, her mother murdering her father, nor her brother slaying their mother. Iphigénie loved her mother more than her father, understandably, so it’s especially hard to embrace her mother’s executioner. Can anyone really expect her to immediately go party?

Generations of American opera-goers never knew this opera. They were familiar with only one Gluck piece, Orfeo Ed Euridice, and occasionally his Alceste was presented as a vehicle for Rose Bampton in 1941, Kirsten Flagstad 1952 and Eileen Farrell 1961, when I saw it. Those sopranos would have sounded great as Iphigénie but none of them could have acted the role nearly as well as Graham. Iphigénie en Tauride is superior to Alceste as a work of art. We’re lucky to live in an era when it can be so gloriously produced.

Photo: © Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Text: © Steve Cohen
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