This is a Claus Guth production of one of Gluck’s best operas, staged at the Opernhaus Zurich in 2001. The story is both very conventional in one sense – it’s a Greek myth – and less so in another: it’s one of the few operas I can think of where the central character is female and the story is not about her falling into or out of love. How about that!
The other thing about this is that whenever I hear the phrase “Iphigenia at . . .” I automatically, thanks to P.D.Q. Bach, think “Brooklyn!” (Most people are unaware that Iphigenia ever was in Brooklyn, but, well – this is the thing about musicolological research, isn’t it.)
Basically, it is a hard knock life if you are a daughter of Agamemnon. As a girl, Iphigenia was nearly sacrificed to Artemis for meteorological reasons, but at the last moment – so the story goes – she was swapped out for a deer. It is not clear to me how obvious the swap was to everyone else, because in the text of Gluck’s opera, her brother Orestes seems to think that Iphigenia actually was sacrificed. Iphigenia is fortunate in that unlike some other young ladies of the ancient world who get rescued from sticky situations only to be turned into trees or some shit like that, she remains a living human being. Specifically, she lives in Tauris and is a priestess of Artemis.
Her brother Orestes and his special friend Pylades wash up on the shore. In order to atone for murdering his and Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra, Orestes has to retrieve the statue of Artemis in Tauris and take it back to Athens. However, this is one of those things that is much easier said than done. Have you ever gone to the library to consult something in Special Collections and been told that, actually, the archival staff has a policy that everyone who enters Special Collections gets sacrificed over a pile of request slips in a big tub in the back room, and then they burn the request slips and leave the bodies wrapped in plastic behind the provost’s office? No? Well, the situation that Orestes and Pylades get into is a bit like that, minus the provost. They need the statue, but the Taurians are bent on sacrificing them.
Iphigenia feels sorry for the two young men, and especially for Orestes, who she does not recognize but to whom she feels drawn. Without revealing who he is, he tells her that Orestes has found the death he wanted, but that their sister Elektra still lives. Iphigenia decides to break the rules. Only one of the young men will get the knife, and the other will return to Greece with a letter for Elektra. Orestes and Pylades have a big fight over who gets to sacrifice himself for the other; neither wants to be the one who takes the letter and leaves his friend to die. In the end, Pylades goes and Orestes stays. But Iphigenia cannot steel herself to kill the young man. She calls upon Artemis for strength, raises the knife – and then Orestes recognizes her and calls her by name. So of course she can’t kill him. Brother and sister are happily reunited. But then the king of Tauris, Thoas, learns of what is going on and flips his shit – which is understandable, given that if you do not obey the gods with regard to things like sacrifices, you usually do not hear the end of that for a while – and decides that EVERYONE IS GETTING SACRIFICED. But then Pylades, who I guess forgot his keys or something, comes back and kills Thoas, and then Artemis shows up and everything gets sorted out.
Next up: it’s a Claus Guth production, so you know there’s going to be some interesting visuals. (Next section here.)