Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, shown recently at the Paris Opéra, was first performed in 1779 at France’s Royal Academy of Music. Iphigénie was composed towards the end of Gluck’s Paris period, in which he wrote his so-called “reform” operas. These innovative and often successful works, beginning with Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, strived for greater sincerity in depicting the emotional life of characters while avoiding the fripperies of Italian opera of the era. His works for the French court—Marie Antoinette was his patron and pupil—struck a blow in an ongoing battle between rival partisans of French opéra comique and Italian opera buffa that had been raging since the 1750s. Despite the success of Iphigénie en Tauride and Gluck’s other reform operas, his achievements in this conflict were eclipsed by France’s confrontation with Wagnerism in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.
Unlike much early French music, Iphigénie en Tauride never fell out of the repertoire of major opera companies entirely. It was staged in Paris through the Revolution, during the Napoleonic era, and into the late 1820s. After that, it resurfaced periodically, until it entered the Paris Opéra’s repertoire in 1931. Since its first performance with the company, it has been performed nearly five hundred times. Iphigénie en Tauride is based on a French play in the neoclassical idiom by Claude Guimond de La Touche, which was itself adapted from Euripides’ plays about the cursed house of Atreus. Richard Strauss liked the theme so well that early in his career he re-orchestrated Iphigénie en Tauride in a version that, while forgotten today, nevertheless enjoyed a respectable performance history.
The events of Strauss’s Elektra serve as a prequel to this story. Oreste, having killed his mother and her lover to avenge his murdered father Agamemnon, has been pursued by the Furies and has lost his vision. Accompanied by his friend Pylade, he arrives in Tauride, the ancient Greek name for today’s Crimea, where the local Scythian ruler Thoas has imposed the inhospitable custom of sacrificing those who wash ashore. The local priestess Iphigénie is, in fact, Oreste’s long-lost sister, whom Agamemnon had offered as a sacrificial victim to secure a favorable wind when setting out for the siege of Troy. Unbeknown to everyone, however, the goddess Diana had rescued the forsaken girl and spirited her away to safety in Tauride. Although Iphigénie and Oreste do not recognize each other at first, they eventually solve the mystery. With Oreste’s sight restored, the two join forces to overthrow Thoas. Diana praises them and sends Oreste home to rule in his rightful place, with Iphigénie accompanying him as the combined Greeks and Scythians hail peace and harmony.
The Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production premiered at the Paris Opéra in 2006. Like many productions in the Regieoper staging style, it adopts the conceit that outsized emotions have no place in the normative human experience and can only be felt by those who have lost touch with reality. Operas lending themselves to this style now tend to be staged in modern dress and set in contemporary times, within the confines of some form of institution. Here, the institution is a seedy retirement home, with the chorus of priestesses represented by older women pacing up and down the stage whose voices are provided by a masked chorus in the director’s boxes that flank the proscenium. Mirrors abound, suggesting that our neuroses and emotional predilections arise from reflection rather than the cruel forces of fate and nature. Warlikowski and his production team helped to start a Eurotrend of blandness that has installed some of our greatest works in institutions (in fact, the last two Vienna State Opera productions of Wagner’s Parsifal were staged in a mental hospital and a prison). Here there are plenty of sinks for the inmates to sing under or be sick into, depending on what else is happening on stage. It says much more about the empty vision of much contemporary opera stagings than it does about the enduring human condition.
Though the visual aspects might have depressed the masked audience, the musical performance enlivened the evening. In the title role, the Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught brought a steely edge to Iphigénie, as she accessed the character’s pain and confusion with a bright but well-grounded gleam. The young American baritone Jarrett Ott delivered a splendidly complex Oreste, and Julien Behr, a rising French tenor, sang steadfastly as Pylade. The bass Jean-François Lapointe was a menacing Thoas, and Marianne Croux made a strong impression as the goddess Diana, who introduced the powerful finale. The conductor Thomas Hengelbrock brought a light and swift touch to the Paris Opéra’s fine orchestra.