Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, February 12.

The word operatic connotes grandeur and spectacle, usually to the point of extravagance, and under that narrow understanding of opera, eighteenth-century composer Christoph Gluck’s musical dramas scarcely qualify. They were, in fact, a reaction against Gluck’s perception of the genre as, well, operatic: a hollow celebration of virtuosic but meaningless fireworks with no connection to story or character.

Gluck’s own operas, by contrast, are defiantly stripped down to their core elements—no coloratura flamboyance, no shaggy humor, just simple, sincere storytelling and a constant flow of elegantly emotional music. The relative austerity of it can be strange. At Iphigénie en Tauride, Sean pointed out that Gluck’s operas might, in some ways, be better suited for the concert hall than the stage because there’s so little action of any kind to depict. I see his point—and I’m not too fond of this particular production—but I’m loath to give up the quiet but poignant drama of long-exiled Iphigénie finding her similarly exiled little brother. There might not be any histrionic vocal embellishments to mark the occasion, but when it reaches its high points, it’s stirring all the same.

The opera tells the story of Iphigenia, the Mycenaean princess who becomes one of the countless victims of the Trojan War when her father, King Agamemnon, chooses to sacrifice her life to win favorable winds to carry his Greek army to Troy. Gluck and his librettist follow Euripides’s telling of the story, in which Artemis plucks the girl from the altar, without anyone present realizing what has happened, and spirits her away to a distant land. It is a dubious mercy for both exiled Iphigenia and her family. Unable to forgive Agamemnon for killing their daughter (or so she believes), Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, murders him upon his return to Mycenae. Unable to forgive Clytemnestra for killing his father, Iphigenia’s brother, Orestes, eventually murders Clytemnestra. And then, unable to forgive himself for killing his mother, Orestes is tormented by the Furies for years.

All of this takes place before Iphigénie en Tauride begins. (Dramatizing scene after scene of graphic bloodshed isn’t really Gluck’s style.) In the opera, set years after the fall of the House of Agamemnon, Iphigénie (I hate not using the Greek names, the ones I grew up with, but so be it) is still stuck in savage Tauride, where she is forced to serve as a priestess. The Tauride king commands her to sacrifice all foreigners who turn up on their shores, starting with the two who have just washed up. The unfortunate pair turns out to be Oreste and his faithful companion Pylade, and when sister and brother finally make that connection and tearfully reunite, Diane (Artemis) takes pity on them, turns away the Furies, and allows them to escape Tauride along with Pylade.

And that’s it: three acts of nearly actionless sorrow culminating in an archetypal deux (literally deux!) ex machina in the final act. The end. Maybe that’s why Stephen Wadsworth’s production makes such a commotion of what is there, portraying Agamemnon’s would-be slaughter of Iphigénie and Clytemnestre’s slaughter of him in superfluous dumb shows and staging everything in an ostentatiously pagan, brutal structure with enormous stone statues and torches, everything red and brown and black, bloody and earthy and dark. The chorus moves about in clumsy, gestural dances that look like a hopeless attempt to integrate stylized Classical theater with a more naturalistic aesthetic, and everybody is swallowed up by rough robes and overlong wigs. It’s cluttered and fussy and distracting—in short, it looks very “non-Glucky.”

The production gives too little credit to the performers. The iconic tenor Plácido Domingo plays Oreste, and although his voice no longer has the sustained power it must have had in his younger days, he still sings with stunning musicality, eloquently conveying the man’s anguish and incipient madness. As Pylade, Paul Groves is heartbreaking. His graceful, fluid lines and bright, clear tone are perfect for Gluck, making his second act aria, “Unis dès la plus tendre enfance,” breathtakingly lovely.

But the star, fittingly, is the production’s Iphigénie, Susan Graham. Even the world’s ugliest wig can’t detract from the dignity and grace of her performance. She gives a hushed, prayerful intensity to some of her quieter passages and rises to impassioned authority as the exiled princess grows more forceful. Her most beautiful aria, “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie,” couldn’t quite replace Gluck’s “Che farò senza Euridice?” from Orfeo ed Euridice in my heart, but the fact that it even came close is a testament to her gorgeous, tender tone and delicate phrasing—and, of course, to Gluck himself. How he can bend a major key into such an exquisite expression of tragedy is a mystery beyond my understanding, but he does it, with such subtlety and deceptive simplicity that one can’t help but come around to his way of thinking, at least for the length of an aria. Spectacular arpeggios and trilled figures would be an obscenity here, an unforgiveable diversion from the emotional weight Gluck has conjured with such artistry. The aria isn’t flashy, but every note conveys the character’s sense of loss and pain. Maybe this—this perfectly wrought musical expression—is what’s truly operatic.