Revival of the production from the 2015 Whitsun Festival
Iphigenia is visited by horrifying images in a dream: first of her father Agamemnon, slaughtered by her mother Clytemnestra, then her brother Orestes, to whom she wants to extend a helping hand but as if under duress plunges a sword into his heart. There seems to be no escape from the curse afflicting the descendants of Tantalus that makes them become murderers of one another. Iphigenia is traumatized by her past: betrayed by her father, she was facing death on the sacrificial altar at Aulis before being transported to Tauris at the last minute by the goddess Diana. Now the roles are reversed: it is Iphigenia as priestess who has to sacrifice others, a role she has been forced to assume by Thoas, king of the Scythians, and which has become intolerable for her.
Iphigenia’s nightmare reveals both events that have already happened and ones that are yet to come. The storm that forms such an impressive opening to Gluck’s opera Iphigénie en Tauride has cast Orestes and his friend Pylades onto the shores of Tauris, and Iphigenia is soon afterwards confronted with the pair, who have been taken prisoner, as sacrificial victims, although she does not recognize her brother at this point. Their imminent fate grieves Orestes only for the sake of his friend; he himself has wished for nothing more than death since the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, an act he performed to avenge his father. While his forebears were unaffected by feelings of guilt, his own crime has plunged him into the deepest despair. In his sleep he is at the mercy of his subconscious – the Furies constantly torment him with the charge that he has slain his mother.
To free oneself of one’s past: while this is expressed in Orestes as a desperate, resigned flight from himself, in Iphigenia it is a fully considered need to finally break the fateful cycle of violence. When compelled to kill her brother, she implores Diana to smother the ‘voice of humanity’ in her – but knows that this is tantamount to extinguishing her innermost being. Iphigenia’s humanity and empathy stand out all the more radiantly in contrast with the Scythians, whom the music also clearly characterizes as ‘barbarians’, and with Thoas, whose dark fears turn into fury and aggression.
Gluck imbues Iphigenia with a musical character that Carl Dahlhaus aptly referred to as a ‘tone of humanity’. One might see its ‘pathos of simplicity’ as the fulfilment of Winckelmann’s aesthetic postulate of ‘edle Einfalt’ (noble simplicity) and call it classicistic, if this term did not also carry with it the idea of a bloodless attenuation or holding at a distance of emotional intensities. As far as the effect of Gluck’s music on his contemporaries is concerned, there can be no talk of inner distance: ‘A number of people in the audience were seen to sob from beginning to end’, noted the Mémoires secrets à propos of the Paris premiere of Iphigénie en Tauride in May 1779. This impact was also due to the young Nicolas-François Guillard: this, his first, libretto is steeped in the ‘language of the heart’, the ‘strong passions’ and ‘interesting situations’ that Gluck had touched on in the programmatic preamble to Alceste and which he claimed to have realized in a more dramatically compelling and moving way than was the case in traditional opera seria or the French tragédie lyrique. In this he was aided by the clear and stringently structured plot of his Euripidean source; in the opera the action is even more condensed, being focused entirely on Iphigenia and Orestes, the dramatic tension concentrated on the impending sacrifice and the mutual recognition of brother and sister.
With Iphigénie en Tauride, his penultimate opera, Gluck celebrated the greatest triumph of his career. Despite the happy ending, the work was fêted as a ‘true tragedy’, as a ‘tragédie à la grecque’. It finally saw the realization of an aim which ever since the birth of opera had repeatedly been envisaged by its reformers: an approximation to the effects of classical tragedy.
Translated by Sophie Kidd
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August 19, 2015 19:00:00
August 22, 2015 19:00:00
August 24, 2015 19:00:00
August 26, 2015 19:30:00
August 28, 2015 19:00:00
Work's characters list