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'Iphigénie en Tauride'

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Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride,
M. Delunsch, S. Keenlyside,
Les Musiciens du Louvre,
M. Minkowski

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M. Ewans, Opera from the Greek: Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation
We love the operas of Gluck, so we are exceedingly happy that Washington National Opera has finally gotten around to staging one of them: a new production of Iphigénie en Tauride opens this Friday. Gluck premiered Iphigénie en Tauride in Paris on May 18, 1779, a follow-up of sorts to his Iphigénie en Aulide from 1774. (In the ongoing pamphlet war in that era, Piccinni set the same story as an opera, which was premiered in 1781.) Gluck reused some of the music from his ballet Sémiramis in the French version and then made a revision in 1781, in German for Vienna, modifying the role of Oreste from (high) baritone to tenor. Julian Rushton, in the liner notes for this worthy recording of the original Paris version of Iphigénie en Tauride, made live at La Maison de Radio France in March 1999, puts this recycling of music into the best context: rather than understanding Gluck's self-borrowings as representing a paucity of ideas, one should compare Gluck's masterful adaptation of his own earlier music, which had few chances of ever being heard again, to "the assembly of Bach's B Minor Mass from earlier cantatas," part of "a curiously modern mode of self-criticism."

The libretto is based on Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides, a story that was set many times in the 18th century, notably as a play by Goethe in 1787. The goddess Diana spares Iphigenia from being sacrificed by her father at Aulis, to provide winds for the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. Iphigenia is magically transported to Diana's temple in Tauris, a part of Scythia known today as the Crimean peninsula. Orestes and his friend Pylades arrive at the temple, sent by Diana herself to bring her sacred images from the temple back to Greece. The Greek visitors are sentenced to be sacrificed (a ritualistic practice among the Scythians, mentioned by Herodotus). As the punishment is to be carried out by Iphigenia as priestess of Diana, she agrees to let one of the prisoners escape but cannot ultimately bring herself to kill Orestes, whom she eventually recognizes as her brother. Pylades returns with soldiers to try to free Orestes, when Diana herself descends in a cloud to put all to right.

Many specialists regard the opera as the pinnacle of Gluck's achievement of his goals in operatic reform. Because he was working with a younger librettist, Nicolas-François Guillard, Gluck was able to oversee and often overrule his less experienced colleague on dramatic decisions, even as he was setting the text to music. Michael Ewans, in his book Opera from the Greek, writes about Gluck's attempt to bring opera back to its dramatic roots, namely the Florentine Camerata and the restoration of Greek tragedy: "in the second Iphigénie Gluck was able to create a new operatic drama, in which musical effects are employed solely for dramatic purposes, and the interaction between text and music is extremely close" (p. 32). One measure of success in this aim was the enthusiastic response of audiences: even the notoriously critical Grimm wrote, "when I hear Iphigénie, I forget that I am at the opera; I believe that I am listening to a Greek tragedy" (quoted by Ewans). This is true even though, as Ewans points out, Gluck and his librettist make the ultimate sacrifice in their pursuit of the ideal of Greek tragedy, dispensing with any element of a love interest in this opera. The passionate loves here are between siblings (Iphigénie-Oreste) and friends (Oreste-Pylade).

True to his ideals, Gluck excised from the libretto any text not critical to moving the action forward. To add further to the work's dramatic leanness, Gluck included no divertissement, the often unrelated ballet scene that concluded most operas in Paris in this period. (One was added by the Opéra de Paris, The Scythians in Chains with music by Gossec, after only a few performances of the opera, to please the audience's demands.) There are two ballet scenes, however, but building on Gluck's work making ballet into a more dramatically coherent genre, they are integrated fully into the opera's story: when the wild Scythians demand the execution of the two Greek prisoners, and when the Furies (and Clytemnestra's ghost) appear to Oreste and torment him in a dream. Gluck prefers a Greek chorus-style interaction of soloist and chorus instead of the traditional solo aria: as Ewans notes, "the recreation of a truly Greek chorus is one of the most remarkable aspects of Iphigénie" (p. 46). At the same time he purposefully avoids ensembles of soloists, which tend to obscure comprehensibility of text: there is really only the one trio and one duet in Act III.

The bloody plot -- well, at least the threat of the sacrifice that never happens -- tends to attract controversial stagings for this opera. WNO has imported a production directed by Emilio Sagi from Spain's Opera de Oviedo, reportedly minimalist and updated to the modern era, and the choice of Gluck is in some ways the parting gift of Plácido Domingo, who has also starred in the opera in recent stagings at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The role is a good fit for Domingo, who is exploring baritone roles these days and often has to transpose his tenor roles downward. As the editors of the critical score note, Oreste was originally written for a high baritone, even notated in C clef, and then sung by a tenor in the Vienna revision. Instead of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as the Iphigénie to his Oreste, Domingo will star with Patricia Racette in the title role. With so few moments of vocal decoration or musical extravagance, the dramatic punch of the opera rests on the stage presence of the singers, and Domingo and Racette both have it in spades. The cast is rounded out by promising young tenor Shawn Mathey as Pylade, and Simone Alberghini as the spiteful Scythian Thoas. Thomas Lacey, who was at the podium for Domingo's star turn in Handel's Tamerlano, will conduct.

Washington National Opera's production of Iphigénie en Tauride has performances on May 6, 9, 12, 15, 17, 20, 25, and 28.

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